PHOENIX - Early in the preseason, when the 76ers were struggling to comprehend new coach Doug Collins' offensive and defensive systems, and the coach was trying to figure out how to best put together the pieces of a puzzle that had won just 27 games last season, Collins got a call on his cell phone.

On the other end was Grant Hill, the former Duke teammate of Collins' son, Chris, who also played for Doug Collins in Detroit. All Hill wanted was to see how his former coach, his forever friend, was handling the new situation, the return to coaching after 8 years away from the sideline.

"I was struggling trying to figure things out, wondering how I was going to get everything the way it should be and then Grant called," Collins said at the time. "That put everything in perspective. He told me how what I had taught him as a young player has helped him up until now. You can't imagine how much that meant to me."

While Collins and Hill were united in Detroit, Hill posted some of the best numbers of his career, averaging more than 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

"Doug is a great friend and I was lucky to play for him early in my career," said Hill. "A lot of the things he taught me in Detroit early in my career are things I'm able to apply now. Obviously I'm not as athletic or explosive as I was when I was younger, but that foundation is the same from the things he did in Detroit - understanding the game, understanding various angles, preparation things - I have taken on my journey. It's great that he's back in the league coaching."

Now in his 16th season in the league, Hill has found a comfortable place in Phoenix, a big part of a high-octane offense that might get revved up even more now that they have acquired Vince Carter via trade.

"I love Grant," said Collins. "You watch him on tape and he's running like a thoroughbred. He's the first man down the floor, he's playing the other team's top player - [Dirk] Nowitzki, [Kevin] Durant, LeBron James - he's a great player. He's smart, loves to play, great energy, great teammate. I could go on and on. Grant Hill is one of the all-time great people in the NBA."

And one who knew Collins back in the early days of his coaching career.

"He was a fiery guy," Hill recalled, "but we responded to it. Part of [Collins' calmness now] is from getting older and a little bit of change in the personality of players today. You have to have a different approach. He was tough, and as a result we were tough.

"When he got to Detroit you saw the mindset change, the culture change. In our case he inherited a team that won 28 games and the next year [under Collins] won 46 with a lot of the same personnel. Basically it was him coming in and getting everybody to buy in and working our tails off. Things may have started a little slow for us, but ultimately we got things clicking."

Sixers fans are hoping for the same.

Iguodala out again

Sixers forward Andre Iguodala was out again last night due to tendinitis in his right Achilles. It is the second-straight game Iguodala has missed due to the injury, which also cost him five games earlier in the season.

"I've got soreness, it just kind of flared up again and I haven't really been able to play comfortable," Iguodala said after the morning shootaround at Phoenix' US Airways Center, in which he didn't participate. "It got really stiff after the Boston game [Dec. 22] and I hurt for the Denver game but I figured I'd just play it out, play through it. It just never warmed up for me during that game. It's been off and on. It's like tendinitis in the knees. I had that a couple times during my career off and on. This is off and on, you just really can't get rid of it."

His injury couldn't have come at a worse time as the Sixers are running through an eight-game road trip that includes many fast, explosive teams.

"Hopefully he'll be ready to go by the Lakers [Friday night]," Collins said. "We miss him, obviously, he's our best perimeter defender. He can guard multiple people. We really missed him the other night. We got strung out on the perimeter against Golden State and they hit 15 threes on us.

"We thought that we had [Iguodala's injury] under control and I don't know what happened. I don't think we've overpracticed or that his minutes have been too much. I don't know if it's wear and tear from playing this summer [for Team USA in World Championships]. We desperately need him."

Father Lou back

Lou Williams was back with the team after watching his daughter, Jada Janine Williams, enter the world at 8 pounds, 12 ounces on Tuesday evening.

"I took a private plane this morning, got here at like 10 a.m.," said Williams. "I'm tired, but focused on playing a basketball game."

Vinsanity debuts

Vince Carter, acquired from the Orlando Magic close to 2 weeks ago, made his debut for the Suns last night, starting in the backcourt alongside Steve Nash. Carter had been sidelined by a sore left knee, but worked out the past 2 days without much problem. *

For more Sixers coverage, read the Daily News' Sixers blog, Sixerville, at http://go.philly.com/sixerville.

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