Maurice Cheeks, the 76ers' coach, said he thought ''that was winning basketball.''
But it wasn't.
That's what the final score said.
It was way, way better than the basketball the Sixers played in Monday night's loss in Charlotte. There was better defense. There was better energy. There were better conmtributions from the bench.
But there wasn't a win.
There were Anthony Johnson and Rashard Lewis each draining a three-pointer in the final minute, leaving the Sixers with a 96-94 loss tonight in the Wachovia Center, dropping them to 7-8.
That's what can happen when an opponent can spread the floor with four shooters and have Dwight Howard lurking around the basket. In this case, Johnson, the 34-year-old point guard filling in for the injured Jameer Nelson, cut the Sixers' lead from 92-88 to 92-91 with a minute left. The Magic knocked down 9 triples; this was Johnson's only one.
The Sixers still led 94-93 on two free throws by Andre Iguodala with 14.6 seconds to go, but the Magic, now 11-4, came out of a timeout and saw Rashard Lewis hit a 24-foot triple to shove them ahead 96-94 at 4.8.
"Every once in a while you have to get lucky, and tonight we got lucky,'' Lewis said. "We hung in there and knocked down some big shots towards the end and we were able to steal the win.''
With no timeouts remaining, the Sixers tried running a play Cheeks calls ''X.'' The ball was supposed to end up in Iguodala's hands for one last attempt, but Andre Miller lofted a 38-foot air ball as time ran out.
''X'' didn't exactly mark the spot.
''I really had no choice,'' Miller said.
Left unsaid was the foul shooting by Howard, who came in at a strugling 54.3 percent. The Magic center, who had 21 points, 14 rebounds and 2 blocks, drained 6 of 8 attempts in the fourth quarter.
''The way we played tonight was the way we need to play night in and night out,'' Cheeks said. ''I thought it was good defensive basketball . . . Again, I just thought that was winning basketball. It was unfortunate we didn't win the game.''
It was equally unfortunate that the Sixers didn't take more advantage of some excellent work off the bench from their two backup centers, the veteran Theo Ratliff and the rookie Marreese Speights. Ratliff played 17:50, his longest stretch of the young season, played solid defense and contributed 5 rebounds. Speights had 12 points in 13:32, including a desperation triple at the third quarter buzzer that gave the Sixers a 72-71 lead.
Elton Brand led the Sixers with 21 points, while Iguodala ,managed 17 points and 7 assists.
''We have a tendency to play to the level of the team we're playing against,'' Iguodala said. ''Tonight, I think we stepped it up in the second half. Throughout the rest of the season, no matter who we're playing against, we have to play at a high level.''