A LOOK AT the box score of last night's 100-98 76ers win over the New York Knicks will show that Sixers center Elton Brand dominated with a season-high 33-point, 16-rebound effort.

What it won't show is perhaps Brand's biggest play of the night. With the Sixers holding a tenuous 87-86 lead, Andre Iguodala was cutting through the lane from the right side to the left corner, trailed closely by the Knicks' Danilo Gallinari. Brand firmly planted his feet, crossed his hefty arms across his chest, elbows slightly extended, and planted a thunderous pick on Gallinari that would have made Juan Castillo - before his job changed - proud.

Iguodala (career-high 16 assists, 18 points) got the pass and drained a three right in front of the Knicks bench that kept alive a 23-4 run, propelling the Sixers to their sixth win in seven games and raising their record to 23-26.

"That was just part of the game," Brand said of the bone-jarring pick. "It was an important game, the ball came to me, coach [Doug Collins] called my plays. I've had some pretty big games this season, but this was the best overall game because we needed this one. I was prepared. It was definitely a long time coming. An important game that means something, it's February, we're looking for playoff positioning. It was a fun game all around. And to get the win, that was what was most important."

If there was a better way for the 76ers to start a two-games-in-less-than-48-hours stretch with the Knicks, it certainly would be hard to match what transpired in the first quarter last night at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers frustrated Knicks star forward Amare Stoudemire, got 19 points from Brand, nine assists from Iguodala, shot 70 percent and steamrolled to a 14-point lead.

But as the Sixers have frustratingly showed numerous times this season, big leads are about as safe as a chicken wing at Wing Bowl. Over the next two quarters, the Sixers were outscored, 61-38, shot 12-for-38 (31.6 percent) from then field and entered the fourth trailing by nine, 82-73.

Visions of a late-game demise certainly were dancing in most of players' heads, and the coach's.

"It didn't look good after the third quarter; we couldn't stop them," Collins said. "They were rolling down the lane and scoring at will. But we finally got a handle on it and ended up winning the [battle of points in the] paint by six [44-38], so that was good.

"I told them [at the start of the fourth] that we have to play harder. On our weakside, we did a better job of getting in [defensively]. Sometimes when you play the Knicks, you get so worried about their three-point shooting that you don't guard the paint on the weak side."

They certainly did a better job of it in the fourth. The Sixers limited the Knicks to only four points in the first 9 minutes, 26 seconds of the quarter, while scoring 24 points themselves.

Collins especially pointed out the defensive play of Thaddeus Young, who took two key charges in the fourth.

"Whatever the coach asks me to do when I go out there on the court, I'm going to go out there and do it. That's always been the case with me," said Young, who finished with 10 points. "I won't complain about it or say anything; I just want to go out there and do it. The job must be done."

And it was done, especially in the first and fourth quarters when the Sixers outscored the Knicks, 62-37.

"That was four different games," Collins said. "Ours was the first quarter, theirs was the second and third, and we won the fourth. I told our guys in the fourth quarter that I thought that was as tough as we've been all season long. Thaddeus Young stepped in and took two big offensive fouls. Dre was great. EB got us off to a great, great start. It was a great win, especially for us having to go in there [tomorrow, a noon start], now we've got a game in our pocket and we can head there [tomorrow] and see what happens."

Had it not been for Iguodala, tomorrow would have been more of a must-win than it is now against the team only two games ahead of them for the sixth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

"[Toward] the end of the game, I was going to put the ball in his hands, but we ran a play out of a timeout and he hit a three that was huge. Normally, I run that play for Lou [Williams], but I had Dre and Lou switch spots and Dre hit that big three in the fourth quarter. He was magnificent, 16 assists and no turnovers."

And a huge three-pointer, set up by Brand's screen.

Six shots

The nine assists by Andre Iguodala in the first quarter tied the team record for dishes in a period. The others who did it were Maurice Cheeks, Johnny Dawkins and Eric Snow . . . Raymond Felton led the Knicks with 26 points and nine assists, while Amare Stoudemire had 21 points . . . Last night was referee Dick Bavetta's 2,472 consecutive game, most in NBA history. Bavetta, 71, has been in the league 36 years. *

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