What is not surprising is that the 76ers will face their first elimination game of the 2006-07 season today. If they lose to the Orlando Magic at the Wachovia Center, they will be out of the playoffs.

What is surprising, however, is that it took until April 14 - not April 1 or March 14 - to be presented with a do-or-die game. After all, the Sixers were 5-18 when they traded Allen Iverson on Dec. 19 and 10-29 after they lost at fellow doormat Memphis on Jan. 17.

Even Maurice Cheeks seems amazed.

"To actually have a conversation like this with four games left in the season is pretty good for us," the Sixers coach said yesterday after a light shoot-around at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "From where we were to where we are now, it's pretty good for us.

"I'm not saying I expected us . . . I would be a prophet to even think like that. But what I saw was us working hard night in and night out. I didn't know where it was going to take us, but I saw us working hard and trying to get some results out of it. . . . We had some struggles early on, and these guys stayed with it and they didn't give up on the program."

The Magic enter the game holding the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They own a three-game lead over the 10th-place Sixers with four games remaining for each team, as well as a one-game advantage over No. 9 Indiana, which played last night.

An Orlando win today would mathematically eliminate the Sixers. However, a victory by the home team would keep them alive in their pursuit of the Magic and the Pacers, and would give them the tiebreaker edge over Orlando by virtue of their 2-1 win in the season series.

Of course, the Sixers (33-45) need to win out to have any chance, and their remaining schedule is daunting - tomorrow at Detroit, Tuesday at home against Cleveland, Wednesday at Toronto.

Still, being able to hang on to an unlikely dream this late in the season has been a neat feeling for the Sixers, even if it has reduced their chances of winning the NBA lottery.

"We've been trying to get better," said forward Andre Iguodala, the Sixers' top scorer. "I think some teams have overlooked us - that may have played a part in it. We sneaked up on some of them. But I think you've got to give us credit. We have been playing decent basketball lately, and we've been thinking wins."

Iguodala has missed the last two games with a lower-back strain. Though he did some shooting yesterday, he wanted to wait until today to see how his back felt before committing to playing.

He said the significance of the game "plays a big part" in his decision.

"If you can play banged up," he said, "and still be effective out there on the court, then you definitely want to be out there with the guys."

Cheeks also listed forwards Kyle Korver (sprained right wrist) and Rodney Carney (sprained left knee) as game-time decisions, but conceded that Korver likely would not play.

The Magic looked sharp in the early going, getting off to a 13-4 start. Though they have struggled since then, they have capitalized on fades by the Pacers and the New York Knicks to maintain their tenuous hold on eighth.

Orlando center Dwight Howard is third in the NBA in rebounding (12.3 per game) and fourth in field-goal percentage (59.8 percent). Jameer Nelson, of Chester High and St. Joseph's, is averaging 13.1 points and a team-high 4.2 assists.

Cheeks said today's game would take on a playoff atmosphere. That might present added pressure for young players such as Carney, Louis Williams and Bobby Jones, who have yet to compete in a playoff game.

"If you've ever been in the playoffs, everything becomes a little more magnified where every possession is important," the coach said. "Everything that you've been working on up to this point is important."

And Cheeks said the Sixers had been working all season to get themselves into a meaningful game such as the one facing them today.

"This is something that they should be very proud of," he said, "and I told them to go finish it - not just to be playing in the game, but actually go finish it out and play a purposeful game."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano

at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.