Would This Have Happened If . . .

ATLANTA--There's a lot of time before my flight home tonight. Time to grab a quick airport dinner. Time to weigh some questions and answers.

The other day, someone I respect asked whether the 76ers might be showing the same improvement had threy not fired Maurice Cheeks and brought in senior VP/assistant GM Tony DiLeo from the front ofice. The more I think about it, I'm not sure, without the change, that they would be on the winning streak that reached four games today had they not made the change.

I really feel Cheeks, who did such a fine job last season, was feeling the pressure, that he might even have been out of gas. And it's a fact of life that sometimes NBA players just need to hear a new voice,even if that new voice is saying the same things the previous voice said. Having said that, Cheeks was somewhat ambivalent about the three-point shot; DiLeo has given them the green light. Cheeks was very conscious of using Elton Brand to best advantage in the post. DiLeo has made it clear that Brand--when he returns from his dislocated right shoulder injury--will have to fit in, will have to be the effective trailer on the break that he has been projected to be. DiLeo has put some joy back into their game, telling them to run and to use the triple. Those are things players love to hear.

All he has asked in return is for them to focus and concentrate defensively, to make the proper rotations, to block out around the glass, to rebound. Those are the essential things that trigger the break.

''It looks like we're getting it together a little bit,'' Andre Miller said after today's 109-94 victory. ''We're able to play a little better defense, but no team really plays defense consistently the entire game. I think we made a few stops before (the Hawks) did.''

The Sixers, in fact, held the Hawks to two field goals in their last 10 possessions. That's called getting stops at the right time.

One other by-product of the Sixers' expanded running game: They're using the lob again.

''That's because we're running on the break,'' Lou Williams said. ''Once Marreese (Speights) gets one, once Sam (Samuel Dalembert) gets one, they want to get two, they put themselves in position to get them.''

Cheeks could reach the players with emotional, philosophical messages, and they generally responded. DiLeo seems more basic, more direct to the point.I really believe Cheeks took them as far as he could. I don't feel his work in his time with the Sixers hould be in any way diminished. I still don't expect them to approach my pre-season victory total prediction of 49, but I am becoming more and more convinced that they needed a new voice.

As Theo Ratliff said after the Sixers shot only one free throw in the second half in Dallas: That's life in the big leagues.