AS THE SAYING goes, you can pick your poison. Why anyone would want to pick poison is up for debate, but the 76ers had to do just that last night against the Orlando Magic.

Would they do everything they could to contain superstar center Dwight Howard with constant double- and triple-teams and risk getting bombarded by the Magic's three-point snipers? Or would they play him straight up and take their chances with him?

Turns out they did both, tremendously well. The Sixers suffocated the Magic into 33.3 percent shooting (26-for-78), allowed just nine third-quarter points and swarmed to the basketball like seagulls to a beach picnic while posting a 74-69 win. They limited Howard to an ineffective 17 points on 6-for-17 shooting and 11 rebounds while improving to 15-6, including 11-2 at home.

While the Sixers have been padding their win total against less-than-stellar opponents, observers couldn't wait for the likes of the Magic (12-9) to start littering the schedule. It looked as if the players couldn't, either. There was a playoff-type atmosphere in the Wells Fargo Center and the team in white played as if it were the postseason. Thaddeus Young wound up on the floor numerous times hawking loose balls; Elton Brand pushed and shoved Howard into a night of relative mediocrity and Andre Iguodala turned in another outstanding all-around performance.

The perfectionist that is coach Doug Collins lamented at the fact the Magic scored 18 points in the final 2 minutes, 40 seconds of the game to turn an 18-point lead into a little bit of uneasiness. Still, the win wasn't in doubt at all in that fourth quarter.

"I thought our defense was fabulous except for the last 3 minutes of the game," Collins said. "I let our guys know at the end of the game that I was very, very happy with the win. I was not happy the way we finished the game. If we're going to be a legit team in the playoffs, then we can't let a team score 18 points in the last 3 minutes and not get one stop. So I let them know and I think you have to do that after a win and not after a loss."

Then he allowed: "Our defense for 45 minutes was fantastic."

In a season that lends itself to many excuses for just about every team (schedule, injuries), Orlando had a rock-solid one in that it was playing its sixth game in 8 days and second in 2 days.

But it was the way the Sixers fed off that which was so impressive. Often after failed offensive possessions, the Magic appeared as if it was going back to its corner after a round of boxing, instead of hustling back on defense.

It was the third straight game the Sixers have held the opposition within 40 percent shooting and 80 points, which enabled them to overcome some anemic offensive numbers such as 37.5 percent shooting (30-for-80), 10-for-19 from the foul line, six fastbreak points and a losing margin of 34-16 of points in the paint.

"My motto is, if they're putting the ball on the floor, once it touches the floor it's a loose ball for everybody," said Young, who had 10 points and two steals. "We all try to get on the floor for loose balls and make sure we recover and also try to get all the 50-50 balls and get in transition and beat them down the court. There's a lot of hustling going on. I'm trying to get my teammates possessions each and every time, so I'm diving for loose balls, getting on the ground, getting tangled up with guys. When there's a guy fighting for the team, then everybody kind of chimes in a little bit and does their part."

Everyone seemed to do their part in that decisive third quarter, when Orlando made just three of its 17 shots, none of its six from three-point territory. On the offensive end, Jodie Meeks, whom Collins says needs to get at least four shots a half, made half of his four three-point shots after getting off just two shots in the first half.

"In that third quarter we wanted to come out and establish ourselves," said Iguodala, who collected 14 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. "We were trying to force things, make something happen, and it turned out to be a good quarter for us."

A decisive third quarter, one that left Magic coach Stan Van Gundy seething after his club's fourth straight loss.

"Well, confidence is always a big thing," Van Gundy said after a sarcastic exchange with reporters. "When you are not playing well, your confidence goes down. I love people that think you reach in a barrel and find confidence. Confidence comes with success for any of this, doing anything."

The win and the defensive effort, for 45 minutes at least, kept Collins from letting those final 3 minutes ruin his night.

"I'm thrilled that we won the game, but this is when you have to do your teaching," he said. "That's going to be our group out there that's going to get the stops we need especially when we go small. We've got to do a better job than that."

Six shots

The teams combined to make 20 of 41 foul shots . . . Evan Turner scored 12 points off the bench . . . Orlando was without starting point guard Jameer Nelson, who didn't make the trip due to concussion-like symptoms after taking a blow to the head Friday at New Orleans . . . Ryan Anderson grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds to go with 14 points for Orlando . . . The Sixers host Chicago tomorrow . . . Andre Iguodala's two steals boosted him to fourth on the all-time Sixers list with 1,009, passing Charles Barkley.

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