FRIDAY WILL start the final third of the season for the 76ers. Numerically it doesn't add up, but coach Brett Brown breaks the season down in thirds, and the final one comes after the All-Star break. So with 29 games left after his team posted a 12-41 record in the first 53, Brown views this time of the year for this team as the most important.

"We want our third season to be our best," said Michael Carter-Williams, who missed the last three games before the break with a sprained right big toe. "I have seen a whole different team. It's nice when you're playing with some guys and you're able to be comfortable. Playing with Jerami [Grant] and Nerlens [Noel] and JaKarr [Sampson] and K.J. [McDaniels] and Rob [Covington]. We've been playing together for a little while now so we're able to build and gel with each other."

While tomorrow's trade deadline approaches, MCW is confident that the rebuild can continue without much turnaround on the roster. Not like last year at this time when general manager Sam Hinkie dealt Evan Turner, Spencer Young and Lavoy Allen. He also got rid of Thaddeus Young during the offseason.

"It's not like I have a new teammate coming in or Thad or Evan or Spencer is gone and I have new teammates," MCW said. "We're able to build somewhat of a rhythm and be comfortable with each other and I think that's what's led to some success.

"Everyone's improving. I'm getting comfortable in the pick and roll with Nerlens and Luc [Mbah a Moute]. "I think everybody's getting comfortable and they're able to settle in and we don't have to worry so much. We're all playing for each other now."

The biggest improvement has been at the defensive end, where the team has gotten itself to as high as 11th in overall defense.

"Their defense [is the biggest improvement]," said guard Jason Richardson, who is still out with a stress fracture in his right foot. "These guys are really playing some good defense. It may not show in our record but everyday we're making strides, coming together as a team, playing defense. We still have areas that we could get better in, but these guys play hard all the time."

There is no question they do that. Now they have to carry it further. Now the young core players have to learn how to win close games. Next season, Joel Embiid will join the fray, along with, potentially, two first-round draft picks and four second-rounders. They also may have Jordan McRae, who had a fine year overseas.

"We want to end the final third of the season kicking and screaming," said Brett Brown. "We want to come out on fire. We want our young guys to perform even better than they did in the middle third of the season and a lot of that's going to be on [Carter-Williams] leading us."

It will start on Friday when the Sixers host the Indiana Pacers. The final 29 games will include 15 at home, a western swing that includes the Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets and seven back-to-backs.

Six shots

Each player on the team was supposed to return to Philadelphia by last night. There was an optional practice last night, and the team will practice together at 11 this morning at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine . . . After Friday's home game against Indiana, the Sixers will travel to Orlando and Miami on Sunday and Monday then play in Milwaukee on Wednesday.