PHILADELPHIA (AP) -Elton Brand hoped to turn the Philadelphia 76ers into contenders in the East with his double-doubles in the post, not by his absence.
They are back at .500 (20-20), have won a season-high seven straight games and won convincingly against top teams in the West like Houston and San Antonio. The 3s are falling, the fast-break is sizzling, and the defense isn't allowing many big baskets.
The only troubling part is that Philadelphia has had all this success without Brand. With Brand in the lineup earlier this season, Philly stumbled to a losing record that cost coach Maurice Cheeks his job. Without Brand and with Tony DiLeo calling the plays, the Sixers have jostled their way into the thick of the playoff race.
Now comes the hard part. With Brand set to return - possibly as early as Monday against Dallas - after a lengthy absence because of a shoulder injury the Sixers have to wonder: Can they continue to play as well with their power forward as they did without out him?
uble with Elton the first time, but I know we can make it work,'' swingman Andre Iguodala said. ``That was a long time ago and a lot changed. We're all playing better and Tony has really focused on what we need to do.''
Brand averaged 15.9 points in 23 games before he suffered a dislocated right shoulder on Dec. 17. He decided against surgery and was expected to miss four-to-six weeks and is about in that range now. Brand has missed 14 straight games and the Sixers are 8-6 over that span. They did go 1-5 on a dreary road trip without Brand, but started playing better at the end and put added emphasis on shooting the 3-pointer.
The Sixers insist they've learned from their mistakes at the beginning of the season when they tried to hard to adapt their play around Brand, who thrives more in a set offense, instead of incorporating him into their fast-paced style of play.
``Our problem earlier in the season was that everyone tried to fit him in,'' DiLeo said. ``Elton will fit into the way we play and we're not going to try and fit into the way Elton plays. Elton is on board with everything. He likes the way we're playing, he likes the fastbreak, so he's ready to join us in that style.''
. He admittedly wasn't as aggressive with his shot taking, and wasn't attempting smart shots as the Sixers tried to find their way with Brand.
His 3-point shooting his skyrocketed - 15 3s over the last eight games over making only seven (on 17 percent shooting) in the previous 16 games.
``The crazy thing is that I'm still finding stuff that I can add to my game,'' Iguodala said. ``I'm not really at that peak yet.''
Iguodala believes Brand is a complete enough player that he can be effective as the trailer on the fastbreak or as a low-post threat when Philadelphia adjusts to its halfcourt offense.
``We've seen him make that 15, 17-footer and we've seen him post-up and get baskets, so I think he can do both,'' Iguodala said.
DiLeo has a tough decision about his starting lineup. He could keep Willie Green at shooting guard, Iguodala at small forward and bring the emerging Thaddeus Young off the bench. Or he could put Iguodala back at shooting guard, where he slumped, make Brand and Young the forward and have Green come off the bench.
DiLeo hasn't tipped his hand yet. He has, however, said he expects Brand to come off the bench when he finally does return and play only in small bursts until the works his way back into game shape.
g much since reaching the 2001 NBA Finals. They just have to hope they can figure out the right way to use him and get the biggest bang for their big bucks.
``We know we can play with Elton, we're not worried about it,'' Green said. ``We're all going to change to make this work. And we will make this work.''

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