YOU CAN chalk this Sixers loss up to inevitability, or a lack of frontcourt players.

Or you can simply acknowledge that when he wants to be, New Jersey Nets guard Deron Williams is one of the best players in the game and rocked the Sixers for 34 hard points and 11 assists.

However you want to evaluate it, the Sixers dropped a 97-90 overtime game last night at home and, for the first time this season, lost to a really bad team.

Of their six losses, this was the first time the Sixers came up short against a team that should be considered among the dregs of the NBA.

"The key to the game was they got us to play at their pace," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "Their guards controlled the game the entire night.

"We got off to a horrible start to begin the game. Got off to a horrible third quarter.

"Give them credit. They deserved to win the game tonight. They outplayed us in every phase."

This was an unusual loss for the Sixers this season. This wasn't getting overwhelmed by a more talented Heat team in Miami on the second half of a back-to-back.

This wasn't losing a track meet in overtime to the Denver Nuggets.

This was losing to the type of team the Sixers have feasted on at every opportunity.

Right now, the Nets (6-13) are down there with the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Hornets. They are the type of team the Sixers have worn down with their hard work and have generally overwhelmed for a victory.

But last night, New Jersey wouldn't go away. The Nets were able to match the Sixers' energy and then exploit the advantages they had at guard with Williams and in the frontcourt with the Sixers missing big men Spencer Hawes and Nik Vucevic.

"That's two overtime losses at home," Sixers forward Elton Brand said. "We just have to find a way to finish up.

"We were poised. We took control of the game and took the lead. But we just couldn't finish it up."

With Brand in foul trouble and Thaddeus Young hurting his back, the Sixers played much of the second half with four guards and rookie center Lavoy Allen.

After Brand fouled out, the Sixers basically played the decisive minutes of overtime with five guards on the court.

Other than being the whipping boy for soon-to-be-ex-wife Kim Kardashian, the one thing that Nets forward Kris Humphries can do really well is rebound.

With Humphries grabbing 19 boards, New Jersey had a 45-37 edge in rebounding.

"I thought we did a better job on the boards in the second half, but I thought their size bothered us inside," Collins said.

You don't want to make too much of one loss, but this was a bad one, because the Sixers have played a soft schedule and they need to build up as good a record as they can against the bad teams to get some kind of cushion for those tougher games.

Again, the Sixers were going to lose to a bad team eventually, because every NBA team has one of those games every now and then.

The key for this team is to not let the disappointment against the Nets carry over into tomorrow's game against the Charlotte Bobcats (3-16) at the Wells Fargo Center.

On Saturday, the Sixers play the Detroit Pistons (4-15).

After doing such a good job of taking care of business for the first 18 games, now would not be a good time for the Sixers to stumble against a string of teams they should definitely beat.

Not with the Orlando Magic coming to town on Monday, as the Sixers start a stretch that includes games against the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers. This six-pack against some the league's elites has loomed on the horizon as the time we begin to find out what this team truly is about and what it might be capable of.

"We're going to have to be ready to go," Collins said of the games against Charlotte and Detroit. "We've got Friday, Saturday back-to-back.

"I don't know who is going to be healthy and who's not. But that's the sort of story this season with every team. We've just got to be ready."

Ready to do what they've done for most of the season against teams that they should beat.

For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/Smallwood.