AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Even in the most modest of seasons, there always are small victories, moments to be cherished, situations from which to learn. That includes this season with the 76ers.
Witness Samuel Dalembert.
The 6-11 center is on track to start all 82 regular-season games for the first time in his career. Among centers, only Dalembert and Minnesota's Mark Blount are in that category.
Game 80, a 102-91 victory against the Detroit Pistons, came last night. Dalembert had eight points, six rebounds and three blocks in 21 minutes, 42 seconds. The final two games come tomorrow night at home against Cleveland and Wednesday in Toronto.
This one came without the injured Andre Iguodala (lower-back strain), Kyle Korver (right wrist sprain), Rodney Carney (bruised left knee) and Kevin Ollie (right eye contusion), and it came against an opponent that already had clinched the No. 1 playoff seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference.
"We didn't play against their main guys, but I just liked the way our guys continued trying to do the things we've been asking them to do all this time," coach Maurice Cheeks said.
Dalembert has been a constant in a season of change, one that has included the trade of Allen Iverson to Denver, the buyout of the remainder of Chris Webber's contract, a 12-game losing streak and since-resolved questions about the security of Cheeks. Amazingly, until Saturday's blowout loss to Orlando, the Sixers (34-46) were clinging to the hope of a playoff berth in the NBA's Eastern Conference.
"It's been one of those seasons," Dalembert said. "It's been more positive than negative. The positive is, we put ourselves in a situation where we were in it until Saturday. Nobody knew we would get [to that point]. Nobody expected us to make it that far. That's something to be really proud of, to be able to give ourselves a second chance."
Dalembert went into last night's game averaging 10.9 points and 9.0 rebounds in 31.1 minutes, shooting a solid 54.4 percent from the floor. He has been among the league's top 13 in shooting percentage, rebounds, offensive rebounds and blocks. He has worked diligently on improving his 12-to-15-foot jump shot.
"My main goal at the start of the season was to stay healthy," he said. "I feel a little stronger [than at the end of other seasons]."
Now, looking ahead, Cheeks - as he should - wants more.
"I told him that he's made vast improvement in terms of playing consistently," Cheeks said. "When you talk about players getting better, that's where you have to start, playing well night in and night out, not one game here or five games there. He's made that stride.
"His rebounding has been better, but he's been better in all areas. And his minutes [31.1] being up have allowed his stats to be better. With that, he's scoring better than most people probably thought he could.
"I want him to get stronger. Sometimes, you have to take a player as who he is, but if it's possible I'd like him to be a little stronger, become a little more physical. I think that would allow him to rebound more."
Still, Dalembert went into last night's game with 22 double-doubles, 31 performances of at least 10 rebounds and 27 games with at least three blocks.
"Nothing," Dalembert said, "is really promised when the season starts."
Nothing was promised in Game 80, either, but there were a couple of other Sixers-related small victories. There was Willie Green, who has spent most of the season trying to overcome some lingering knee problems, contributing 26 points, seven assists and five rebounds against his hometown team. And there was Louis Amundson - the NBA Development League rookie of the year - playing 23:12 at just below the speed of sound, putting together eight points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
"I was playing a little fast - I was a little nervous, trying to impress," Amundson said. "That's really my game anyway."
One more small victory came in the form of a two-handed throwdown slam by Joe Smith in the second quarter.
"I knew Joe could still play, I didn't know he could do that," Cheeks said, laughing. "Ask him if he knew."
Joe? "I only pull that out once in a while," Smith said, also laughing. "I got up real slow after that."