IT DOESN'T matter that the Sixers were undone by a pair of last-minute offensive rebounds, or that they missed two good shots in the final moments.

It doesn't matter that they blew a 17-point lead.

What matters is that they emerged from the wilderness a bedraggled tribe, exhausted and starving for wins. Still, somehow, the promised land is in sight.

The Sixers exited the toughest stretch of their fractured season barely breathing and hardly relevant. They went 7-19 after November until, in desperation, coach Doug Collins - a believer in bench balance - put all of his better scorers on the court at once.

Now, in the middle of an eight-game homestand, the Sixers have a chance to salvage the Andrew Bynum Disaster.

The Sixers could make the playoffs.

They blew out the Knicks on Saturday, the day the Knicks became whole again. The Knicks lead the Atlantic Division. It was the Sixers' biggest win of the season.

Monday night, they nearly beat the Grizzlies, currently the fourth seed in the far superior Western Conference. They lost the game down the stretch, but they did not give it away.

Two offensive boards were contested. They landed in the arms of the Grizzlies' best players; Zach Randolph, then Rudy Gay.

As for those last shots, the Sixers set the first one up for Thaddeus Young, the best player on the court Monday night; a close shot, going to the basket, shot with time enough for a put-back.

"I'm going to make that shot eight out of 10 times," Young said.

The final shot - what would have been a tying three from Nick Young, the team's best shooter - was blocked by Marc Gasol, the smartest player on the court Monday night.

It was a loss, but a close loss to a good team.

That 7-19 abomination? That was bad basketball from a team that played poorly.

In this moment, they are playing pretty well . . . no?


"We're playing very well," Collins insisted. "Not pretty well. Very well."

Fair enough.

If they continue to play pretty well - er, very well - they could make this 18-26 season matter.

How sweet would that milk and honey taste?

They face just two playoff-caliber teams in the final six games of the homestand.

Four games after that, they hope to see Bynum play his first game since they reconfigured the franchise around him and his tender knees.

Assuming minimal setbacks for Bynum, he could be a starter for the last month of the season.

And if that happens, well, considering the jalopies in the parking lot of the Eastern Conference, anything could happen.

Also, there is this: The Celtics, who hold the eighth seed, three games ahead of the Sixers, lost their best player for the rest of the season. Point guard Rajon Rondo tore his ACL.

Even with Rondo, the Celtics had lost six in a row, their third stretch of at least three losses in a row. They are a flawed and vulnerable team.

Then again, so are the Sixers.

They softened their defense late in the first quarter and turned that 17-point lead into a three-point halftime deficit. Regardless of their lineup, the Sixers struggle to stop penetrating point guards and gifted post players. Sure enough, it was Jerryd Bayless' 10 points in the second quarter and Gasol's 14 that spurred the Grizzlies' comeback. They finished with 21 and 27, respectively.

That the Grizzlies turned the game around was less remarkable than the way the Sixers' principals played all night.

Thaddeus Young, outweighed by 25 pounds by All-Star forward Randolph, again welcomed the bruising nature of the game the way he welcomed it Saturday, when he frazzled Carmelo Anthony.

Young bullied Randolph under the boards then beat Randolph downcourt for an alley-oop dunk. Young hit a 16-footer, then harried Randolph into a missed 6-footer, Randolph's signature shot. In the third, Young sparked a 12-3 run when he stole the ball, turned Gasol around on a coast-to-coast drive, then stripped Randolph on the baseline.

Randolph, who averages more than 16 points a game, finished with a season-low four points on 2-for-7 shooting.

"Ah, I only took seven shots," said Randolph, who averages nearly twice that. He took so few because Young denied him the chances.

"Fantastic," Collins gushed. "He was tremendous."

"I was very satisfied with my defensive effort tonight," Young agreed.

In the absence of Bynum, teams like the Grizzlies always will hold an advantage.

With Young occupied with Randolph, the Sixers cannot defend a 6-8 jump shooter like Gay; not with Evan Turner, anyway. Gay, the Grizzlies' leading scorer, had 26.

Gay did not play in the Sixers' win in Memphis on Dec. 26. So, yes, he was the difference in the two games.

With a frontline like Gay, Randolph and Gasol, the Grizzlies are the type of team with which the Sixers cannot expect to compete. Not on most nights.

They're awfully good.

With Bynum, the Sixers are, at least, pretty good.

Maybe very good.

In this moment, all the Sixers have to be is decent.

They are home. They are playing the dregs: Washington on Wednesday, Sacramento on Friday, the weekend off, then Orlando on Monday.

Three bad teams, a combined 49 games under .500.

The fruit could hardly hang lower.