They have played all of 20 games, about a quarter of the season, and there have already been many changes with the 76ers - some subtle, some blunt.

Their prized rookie, Evan Turner, seems to be a little frustrated both with himself and the fact that he keeps getting shuffled between handling the ball and playing without it. Elton Brand, written off by many after two serious injuries hampered three seasons, has been their most consistent player. And their starting point guard, Jrue Holiday, is going through a season much like you'd expect from a 20-year-old in his second pro campaign.

First-year coach Doug Collins had said that he would have a better feel for the players he inherited when they completed about 20 games in the regular season. Saturday, they pinned a 109-91 loss on the Charlotte Hornets to improve to 6-14.

"I think the one thing that's been consistent is our defense has given us a chance to be in just about every game," Collins said yesterday after practice. "The improvement that we have shown from the beginning of the season until now, we're consistently doing a better job. We're rebounding the ball better. I think what goes hand-in-hand is the fact that when we keep our turnovers low, we get good shots and we take good shots, then we get our defense back."

In winning three of the past four games, the Sixers have benefited primarily from their defense. Over the four games, they have allowed an average of 87.3 points and limited opponents to 40.6 percent shooting.

Defense can always be related to offense, and the Sixers have improved there as well. Collins' decision to put guard Jodie Meeks in the starting lineup two games ago has paid dividends as the offense is doing a better job of getting out on the break where Meeks can get to an open spot beyond the three-point mark and force opponents to run out after him. That leaves a lot of room for players such as Andre Iguodala and Holiday to slice to the basket.

"He's making shots and that's great for 'Dre and Jrue - to have a guy out there who can space it out for them," guard Lou Williams said. "He's made an incredible amount of shots. It's a huge plus for us. I'd be lying if I said we expected Jodie to be in the spot that he is right now. I think it's a great thing for him and a great thing for us."

Added Iguodala on Meeks: "They expect him to make his shot, so it makes it easier for everybody."

Also making things easier is a mostly healthy Iguodala, who missed 5 1/2 games with tendinitis in his right Achilles'.

"He's very engaged, emotionally and physically," Collins said. "[He has] high energy, efficient, very, very good and talking more out on the court. He doesn't say much, but what he says is very important. And when he's very engaged, it has a trickle-down effect on everyone else."

Williams, who has been a teammate of Iguodala for 6 years, sees it as well.

"He's been a lot more aggressive," Williams said. "This is the most aggressive I've seen him in a long time. We're playing catchup and we need everyone on the same page and 'Dre's doing a great job of leading us here."

Twenty games in, Collins has learned a lot and is still adjusting to what he has learned. In his eyes, there still is one glaring area that needs to improve.

"The only thing I feel like we're lacking right now is the belief on the road to finish games," said Collins, whose team is 1-10 on the road; seven of the losses have been by single digits. "If you look at our road games, most every game we've been in it with 5 minutes to go, with a chance to win those games.

"I'm hoping that we've learned now at home. We've had two great wins at home against New Jersey and Portland where the game was close and we finished them off. It seems we get a little fragile [on the road]. If something goes wrong against us . . . But I think our guys are starting to learn to play through that. I think I'm getting a better feel."

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