GO AHEAD, admit it: You don't like Samuel Dalembert. You think he doesn't have good basketball instincts. You think he makes too many mistakes. You think he's overpaid, that the 76ers need to upgrade his position in the offseason.

As assistant coach Jim Lynam tells Sam when Sam thinks he has been unfairly whistled for a foul, get over it. Go forward, not backward. I like Sam more than most of you. I respect his ability as one of the better shot blockers in the NBA, to play on-the-ball defense, to run the floor. I know he has more than his share of lapses, but I saw him save a game in Houston this season with a defensive rotation. I saw him average nearly a double-double in 2007-08. He doesn't miss games.

Believe me, I'm steeled for an anticipated volley of e-mails, but he also knows more about the game than you seem to think. He knows, for example, exactly what he has been up against trying to defend Orlando's Dwight Howard, something he does not have to concern himself with in tonight's Game 6 of their hammer-and-tong, first-round playoff series.

Sam knows reality, and he knows perception. The reality is, league officials reviewed Howard's first-quarter elbow to Sam's head in Tuesday night's Game 5 and suspended Howard without pay for tonight's game. That's simply the rule: An elbow to the head brings a suspension. It should have brought an ejection, not merely a technical foul, in Game 5.

"The league did what it's supposed to do," Sixers president/general manager Ed Stefanski said. "The refs legitimately called what they saw, and they said they didn't see the contact. It's not unusual for the league to review a play after the fact."

The reality is, Sam and Theo Ratliff will be up against Marcin Gortat and Tony Battie tonight. I remember Jameer Nelson telling me as early as last summer that he thought Gortat could play; the box score of the Magic's second-to-last regular-season game, when Howard rested, shows Gortat taking 18 rebounds. And Battie is a veteran. Oh, and I'm old enough to have been courtside for Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out and rookie Magic Johnson jumped center and had one of the most dramatic performances by a visitor in the history of the Spectrum. Jamaal Wilkes played the role of quiet assassin and scored 35 points and the Lakers won the championship. Funny how everybody remembers Magic, and no one seems to remember Wilkes.

Sam, though, has a grip - part serious, part lighthearted - on perception, too, as when somebody asked what might have happened had he been the one throwing the elbow.

"Forget about it," Sam said. "I'd probably get on a boat, go back home to Haiti. Like my teammates were saying, [they'd] probably throw you on a boat, send you back to Haiti.

"It's what it is. It's nothing against Dwight, nothing personal against him. He was frustrated. I should have been frustrated. We can't even guard him. You take a bump, [it's a] foul. You do this, foul. We deal with it; we don't complain. We won some games, and they won some games. In the heat of the moment, he did that. He probably regrets it by now."

Sam laughed and said, "I guess he probably woke up on the wrong side of the bed, and said, 'I'm going to get the Haitian guy.' I can only imagine if I didn't turn my head what would have happened; maybe I wouldn't be able to keep my composure as I did. I was trying to really keep calm. I shook my head a little bit. I was like, 'Whoa, stay in control.' "

The Sixers have said over and over, every time they run the ball up the floor Howard is somehow there. Waiting. Camped out.

"[Tuesday] was unbelievable," Sam said. "Every time we came down the floor, there was a foul called on one of us. I thought it was summertime already. I thought he was on the beach already. I tell the refs, 'He's right here, he's right here. What's going on?' Some people get away with it, some people don't. That's the way it's always been."

At 36, Ratliff has played against his share of dominant big men. He described Howard as "a powerful guy. He's big, a strong guy. If you let him get too many dribbles, he's so strong he can back you underneath the bucket and get easy shots. At this point in my career, he's definitely a difficult guy. The way he can jump, the way he can move around, he's a load. But [with Howard out], we can't let down. Our back is against the wall. If we lose [tonight], we're done. We have to come out with everything we've got."

Dalembert said he saw the elbow coming, said he was glad "I turned my head."

"It's better than my face," he said. "It's not up to me to decide whether he deserves [a suspension] or not, but I think what he did was [unsportsmanlike]. I would never try to do that to any player in the NBA. Once in a while, you're playing hard and things might happen here or there; you don't look to do it. It was a first elbow, and a second one coming after that. One of them would have to hit me."

Whether Sam and Theo have to deal with Gortat or Battie tonight, Sam said, "We need to really get down and play."

And then he said: "My blood is boiling."

And you do have to like him for that. *

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