It's Always Nice To Win, But . . .

In their preseason opener Wednesday night, the 76ers need something far more critical than a victory.

They need to find out about themselves. They won't learn everything against the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics, but they'll get their first feel about which combinations might be effective, which facets of their game need the most work.

They've talked for nearly two months about Elton Brand providing a low-post presence, drawing double-teams, getting open shots on the perimeter, making certain Brand and center Samuel Dalembert can work together around the paint, etc. If there were ever going to face a strong initial test, it would be against Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, assuming they all play.

''I know when I played, (after training camp) we always wanted to play a game,'' coach Maurice Cheeks said. ''I just want to see Elton against someone other than ourselves. You want to see guys doing different things against a different team.''

The score, the result, then, will not matter nearly as much as the information yielded by the game film.

Who starts? Who plays? Cheeks wasn't offering any clues.

''I learned that from Billy Cunningham when I first started playing (for the Sixers),'' coach Maurice Cheeks said. ''He would put guys in different situations (in the preseason) and see how they'd react; I think that's what this is about. He would tell the guys who were going to start, but he wouldn't say who (else) was going to play, just to see how you were going to react when he called you to come into the game. He wasn't very concerned about the score, as we aren't.''

(An aside: There was a famous moment early in the Sixers' 1982-83 championship season when Cunningham called for Mitchell Anderson, a rookie forward. Anderson somehow couldn't unsnap his warmup pants and had to go back to the bench.)

Cheeks was the point guard when the Sixers won. He understands what it's like to try and defend the title--they were knocked out by the New Jersey Nets in the first round in '83-84.

''When you defend, you know everybody's gunning for you, and there's usually a full house wherever you go,'' he said. "The Celtics are going to get everybody's best shot, as we did. Take the Celtics' series with Atlanta last season. Nobody thought that would go seven games, but they got the Hawks' best shot every time. They were battle-tested, though, because--once they got Garnett and Allen to go with Pierce--they were already getting everybody's best shot.''