THE CARROT was dangled by the coach, and the 76ers ran after it as if ending a hunger strike.

Coach Doug Collins told his players before last night's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers that if they won, he would give them today off.

Their performance showed just how much an off day can mean during a season that spans more than 6 months. The Sixers put together their most complete game of the season in handling the Cavs, 117-97.

Basketball is a pretty easy game when you share the ball, make the right plays on the fastbreak, hit open jump shots and rebound.

The Sixers did all those things so well last night that they didn't get hurt by a subpar defensive effort in dealing Cleveland its fifth straight loss.

In winning for the fourth time in five games and fifth straight at home, the Sixers had 22 assists (compared with seven turnovers), scored 24 points on the break, shot 51.9 percent (42-for-81) from the floor and outrebounded the Cavs, 44-29, in improving to 7-14.

"I wasn't sure how we were going to match up with Cleveland, I was really worried about this game," said Collins, whose club already lost twice to the Cavaliers this season. "I told the guys that if they didn't want to see me [today], then win and we'll give you off. My face does wonderful things to people sometimes."

The team was again spurred by the shooting of guard Jodie Meeks, who scored 16 points (10 in the first), including four three-pointers, in his third straight start. Thad Young led the team with 26 points and corralled 11 rebounds (both season highs), while missing only one of his 12 shots, and center Spencer Hawes posted his first double-double of the season with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Lou Williams poured in 19 points off the bench, Jrue Holiday had 16 points and seven assists, Andre Iguodala collected 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds, and Elton Brand had 12 points.

It was the type of all-around effort that hasn't been customary for this team in a long time. The team is starting to benefit from players' performing the way the organization hoped.

Hawes especially has been a pleasant surprise with his play of late. After struggling mightily in the first part of the season, he is starting to become a decent scoring threat around the basket, grabbing and holding the ball off the rim in traffic. It is a direct result of getting back into shape.

"It's not only being in shape, it's getting into that rhythm," Hawes said. "Getting into basketball shape is a different kind of shape that you can't really replicate unless you're playing in games. You can try as much as you want, doing stuff on the sideline. But until you get into a game, it's hard to get that rhythm, for me especially. I'm a rhythm player. Being back out there and feeling good right now, not only myself, but getting on the page with my teammates makes a big difference."

The Sixers' offensive efficiency in the first half paved the way to their second consecutive comfortable win, following Saturday's 109-91 win over Charlotte. In the first quarter against Cleveland, the Sixers had a stretch in which they scored points on 11 straight possessions. At one point in the second, they scored on seven straight.

The Sixers scored a halftime high in that first half as they built a 66-54 lead, which could have been even bigger had Cleveland not made 22 of 38 (57.9 percent) shots from the floor, bettering the 56.5 percent (26-for-46) by the Sixers.

"Terrific win and winning at home once again," Collins said of the Sixers' longest home winning streak since they won seven in a row in 2007. "I was worried at the start of the game. The building was very quiet, and I said we'd have to create our own energy. Big win, and I think our guys are starting to feel good about themselves."

Perhaps none more than Young, who looks as comfortable out on the floor as a sleeping baby. The game is coming to him again, and he is doing what he does best, using his athleticism, not his outside shooting, to get baskets.

"I've been waiting to get back to my old self," said Young, who is shooting 59.5 percent from the floor and has scored in double figures in 11 of the past 13 games. "I'm just having a great time, having fun out there. Coach always says to go out there and have fun, just play aggressively and have fun. I think that's what I've been doing."

As Collins has said, with hard work comes fun and joy. The players undoubtedly are joyous about their off day. *

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