FOR THE first 5 years of his NBA career, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard was tutored and coached by many. Only 19 when he entered the NBA after being the first pick in the 2004 draft out of Christian Academy in Atlanta, Howard, like most rookies, needed the guidance to get through an NBA season. Talent alone never carries anyone through right away.

One of those mentors was banging and shoving with Howard plenty last night during the Sixers' 74-69 win. Sixers center Tony Battie has been pressed into a starting role with injuries to usual starter Spencer Hawes (Achilles') and rookie Nikola Vucevic (quadriceps). Last night, he played more than usual minutes (17) not because of those injuries but because of his familiarity and effectiveness playing defense against Howard, who went for a quiet 17 points (on 6-for-17 shooting) and 11 rebounds.

"I wouldn't say I'm comfortable playing against him, I mean he probably is the most dominant force in the league right now," said Battie, who posted eight points and nine rebounds, both season highs. "Their offensive is tailored around him to suck in the defense, and if you play him one on one, he's pretty unstoppable, but if you double him from the other guys, they have a lot of three-point shooters out there who can shoot the ball. It's a tough cover. You just have to decide which poison you're going to die by."

The Magic made only seven of 22 from beyond the arc as the Sixers rotated to the ball so well, Orlando never seemed to have an open look.

"You just try to push [Howard] out, which is somewhat impossible at times, and try to stay between him and the basket and force him to shoot his jump hook," Battie said. "If he kills you with the jump hook I think you can live with that. But you definitely can't play him to an angle and give him that either power dribble to the basket for a dunk or the spin lob. You can't die by the dunk. If he kills you with the baby hook all game, then you can live with that."

Like any athlete, Battie, 35, is driven by competition. Going against Howard brings another level of excitement to him.

"Like Bill Russell said when he was guarding Wilt Chamberlain, 'I had to show up.' It's just part of the game," Battie said. "It's a challenge; it's not a one on one type of thing, it's the Sixers vs. the Magic."

Despite seasonlong talk of a trade, Howard has managed to maintain his dominance, going for his 16th double-double of the season last night for Orlando (12-9).

"I'm sure it has to weigh on him, but once he steps between the lines, that's who he is," Battie said. "Once he puts the cape on, he becomes Superman. I don't think that [talk] will cause him not to play well."

No truth

There had been some "reports" that the Sixers had inquired about New York Knick star Amare Stoudemire's availability. When contacted yesterday, Sixers president of basketball operations Rod Thorn said: "Nothing going on at this time. I don't know where that stuff came from."

Rookie returns

After missing four games with a strained quad, rookie center Nikola Vucevic did dress, but did not see action in the Sixers' win. It was his first time in uniform since getting hurt in Miami on Jan. 21.

"I want him in uniform," coach Doug Collins said. "I want him to get game-day preparation again. I don't want him to get used to coming to the game wearing a suit. I want him to get his thoughts together about preparing, especially because he is a young player."

Collins was asked whether maybe this was a little kick-start for the rookie, maybe he needed to learn to play through his first injury a little bit.

"Not at all," Collins said. "Not at all. I just don't want him coming to the arena knowing he can't be out there. It's just a little thing. I want him prepared."