THE MATH LESSONS began shortly after Hedo Turkoglu rescued the Orlando Magic from another late-game meltdown and tied this series at two games each. First someone noted to Sixers coach Tony DiLeo that it was now a three- game series and asked him to comment.

"It is," he said.

Shortly thereafter someone suggested that a 2-2 series tie was just as good as a 3-1 lead.

"No," DiLeo said slowly, tilting his head like a cat. "Three-one is much better than 2-2."

If the math wasn't self-evident, last year's first-round series against the Detroit Pistons should have been. The Sixers, with a 2-1 series edge, held a 10-point halftime lead in Game 4 here against the Pistons and unraveled terribly in the third quarter, collapsing from the pressure of a team still holding enough muscle memory from its trips to the NBA Finals.

Last night, serendipitously tied at 36 after an ugly second quarter, the Sixers allowed the Magic to convert seven straight field goals at the start of the second half, falling behind by double digits quickly.

"This has happened to us a few times this year," Andre Miller said after the Sixers fell, 84-81. "And we talked about it in the locker room. And it still happened . . . "

The magic about playing the Orlando Magic, though, is that they have none of the muscle memory the Pistons had last season. They have won no titles, haven't been down the long road of grueling games and gut tests that take you to that point.

There is none of that self-assuredness that seeped from Detroit.

And thus, there is no awe coming from the Sixers.

"We have a little bit more experience this year," said Lou Williams, who still acts at times as if he's 22 - which he is. Williams had 11 points in a little over 21 minutes, but he also committed two excruciating turnovers.

Still, they were errors of aggression, not timidity.

"Last year guys were a little shellshocked being 2-2," he said, and yes, he was one of them.

When the Sixers blew that lead and lost badly here last year, there was that feeling of awakening a giant. And although Miller insisted that Orlando "is a Goliath," because "they have a couple of good guys over there," the surprising nature of this playoff series hardly changed with the loss.

The Sixers are fast, sloppy, frenetic and deep. They will continue to be. They took 10 more shots than Orlando, got 10 offensive rebounds, outscored the Magic by 10 on the fastbreak.

"They're getting fastbreak points at a rate that's not good in the playoffs," said Orlando guard Rafer Alston, proving he too, gets this math thing.

Had the Sixers converted just a few more putbacks, a few more bunnies, the postgame math would have centered around counting from three to four. As they had in three previous games, the Magic left enough open doors and open windows for the Sixers to once again steal something, but the Sixers played too often like a team that didn't need this game.

If last year's trip to this part of the schedule taught them nothing else, it should have taught them that they did. In the end it felt that way, their defense fueling a rally from 10 points down with less than 5 minutes left, tying it on Samuel Dalembert's dunk with 14.8 seconds left on the clock.

When it ended, Orlando had scored five points over that final span, all from Turkoglu, including his incredible 24-foot bomb over Thaddeus Young with 1.1 seconds remaining. That Andre Iguodala even had a decent look from 28 feet out is indicative that this year might not end like last year, might not finish with the Sixers as bystanders.

Four games. Four wars. Moves and countermoves, schemes trumping schemes.

"People are saying Orlando is head over heels better than us," said Williams, but the truth is, not anymore. Four games all decided in the final minutes, three in the final seconds.

"Philly is a tough team," said Orlando star Dwight Howard. "They never quit."

"Best-of-three now," said Willie Green, continuing the night's math theme. "That's how we're going to approach it. More drama. More adjustments made, by both teams. We still have an opportunity to win this series, just like they do." *

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