OK, SO this is what many of you wanted to see.

For the better part of a month, even as the Sixers were building one of the best records in the NBA, a lot of people put qualifiers on their wins, pointing out that they were beating up on the bottom feeders of the league.

They said the seven-game gantlet that will end January and lead into February would be the true measuring stick of what this team might be capable of.

It started last night against Dwight Howard and the visiting Orlando Magic, one of the highly rated teams with one of the top 10 players.

When it was done, the Sixers had posted a 74-69 victory by doing to the Magic what they've done to the likes of the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Bobcats. They smothered the Magic with suffocating defense, broke their spirit with a third-quarter surge and made them work their rear ends off just to make sure they didn't get run out of the gym the way those really bad teams have been.

If the Sixers hadn't suffered brain cramps that led to a lack of concentration on defense in the final 3 minutes, they would have posted their 14th double-digit victory.

With the Sixers leading, 68-51, and a little more than 3 minutes remaining, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy conceded the loss by pulling his starters, including Howard.

Van Gundy apparently didn't notice that his second unit decided to make an effort, so even when the lead shrank to 10 with a little more than a minute remaining, he didn't go to any of his top players and didn't instruct the unit on the court to do any fouling that might have extended the clock.

With the lead just six with 18 seconds left, Evan Turner and Jodie Meeks made free throws to close out the Sixers' 11th win in 13 home games.

"That was a much-needed win for us here with what we have ahead of us this week," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "I thought our defense was fabulous until the last 3 minutes of the game.

"I let our guys know at the end of the game that I was very happy with the win, but I was not happy with the way we finished the game.

"If we're going to be a legit team in the playoffs and stuff, then we can't let a team score 18 points in the last 3 minutes and not get one stop."

Honestly, the fact that the Sixers could allow a team to score 18 points in the final 3 minutes and never truly be in danger of losing says something about the status they've reached.

Breaking the will of the Toronto Raptors is one thing, but to make the Magic want to go home with 12 minutes remaining is something else.

That's what the Sixers did with another of their trademark surges in the third quarter that has highlighted most of their wins.

Once again, the Sixers' willingness to scrap on every possession reaffirmed that a lot of NBA teams simply don't have the energy or effort to match that work ethic. The Sixers make you play hard every night, and if you don't, they beat you.

So even though the Sixers had only 58 points and were shooting 39.7 percent after 36 minutes, their tenacious defense had furnished them a 16-point cushion.

Defense is about effort, and the Sixers held Orlando to its lowest point total in the all-time series.

The Sixers held an opponent to below 80 points for the third straight game and the seventh time this season. During last season's 82-game schedule, they held opponents to under 80 only six times.

"If you had told me before the game that we were going to score 74 points, shoot 37 percent, 26 percent and 52 percent from the free throw line, I would have not bet on us winning that game tonight," Collins said. "Our defense once again won for us."

So the Orlando Magic went down.

Next up are the Chicago Bulls tomorrow at the Wells Fargo Center followed by the Miami Heat on Friday and a trip to Atlanta on Saturday.

That's three games with three opponents keeping the Sixers company at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Next week, the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers come to South Philadelphia.

That's seven straight games against teams with winning records.

This is the stretch a lot of fans said they have been waiting for.

The Sixers started it off by doing the same things they've been doing for most of the season.

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