THIS GAME was always going to be a unique challenge for the Sixers.

In the course of the season, they've faced teams that were more talented than them, and less talented.

They've played teams with high-octane engines and ones that would conk out with the first sputter.

But only in the Houston Rockets have the Sixers faced a team that stared back at them when they looked in the mirror.

The Rockets are the Sixers of the Western Conference - a collection of undervalued players who have worked hard to make themselves a unit greater than each individual part.

With 7-6 center Yao Ming out for the season with a fracture in his left ankle, Houston has fewer household names than the Sixers.

Rockets guard Kevin Martin is the least known top 10 scorer in the league.

Fans here recognize Kyle Lowry mainly for his Philadelphia roots and brief tenure at Villanova.

The Sixers even have the more recognized native of Argentina with Andres Nocioni getting the nod over Houston's Luis Scola.

But this was a good test of growth for the Sixers after Monday's impressive victory at the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls.

The Rockets are a desperate team scrapping to stay on the heels of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoffs.

They actually had more at stake than the Sixers last night.

This was a game that was going to require the same kind of effort in the Wells Fargo Center that the Sixers gave in Chicago's United Center.

That's exactly what the Sixers gave, especially in the fourth quarter when they separated themselves from the Rockets and pulled out a huge 108-97 victory.

The Sixers wore the Rockets down with smothering defense in the fourth quarter that limited Houston to 15 points.

"That is a very tough team to defend," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "We knew that coming in.

"Our second-half defense was fantastic. Fourth quarter was great."

Because the Charlotte Bobcats beat Cleveland, the Sixers did not clinch a playoff berth, but they did close to within one win of one.

The can lock up a spot with a victory over the New Jersey Nets tomorrow at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers (39-36) remain two games ahead of the New York Knicks for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Think back to training camp. Who really believed that we'd be talking about the Sixers clinching a playoff spot with seven games remaining in the season?

"One step closer," Collins said. "Thirty-nine wins now, which is fabulous. We don't lose two in a row at home, which is great. This Houston team has been playing great basketball, so that was a very quality win for us tonight."

Everything has been about growth for the Sixers.

That's why you have to like the way they responded after Sunday's debacle in the "Lil' Wayne-gate" loss to Sacramento.

The Sixers came back with two superior efforts against quality teams. They got important victories that have moved them to the brink of the playoffs.

"I told our guys, our owner [Ed Snider] was in the [locker room] afterward," Collins said. "He comes in because he loves our team and I said, 'This is the stage of the year where everybody is banged up.'

"[Andre Iguodala] has got a sore knee. [Thaddeus Young] was playing with a sore groin. [Elton Brand] was sick as a dog. He had nothing tonight, but he gave me 28 minutes so that [Spencer Hawes] could be strong, and that Thad and [Hawes] could finish the game together."

About a week ago, I wrote that Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks and Young would be key Sixers to watch down the stretch.

Add Hawes to that list.

If Hawes keeps playing the way he has over the last five games, he is a player who could really bring an added dimension to the Sixers in the playoffs.

Hawes has suddenly found confidence in his jump shot and with the 12 points he had against Houston, he has scored in double digits in five straight games.

The Sixers don't have a single player who averages 15 points, but they have six players who average in double figures.

If Hawes can become the seventh going into the playoffs, it will give the Sixers one more option for what is the most balanced attack in the NBA. *

Send email to

For recent columns, go to