THIS WAS SAM'S world. Everybody else was just living in it. This was the whirling dervish in the paint that 76ers assistant coach Henry Bibby giddily nicknamed "Godfather.''
"He owns the house, he runs the team, he's the head of the house, he's the head,'' Bibby giggled as he left the locker room in the wake of Samuel Dalembert's monster performance of 18 points, 11 rebounds and a career-high-matching nine blocks that keyed a 98-94 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves last night at the Wachovia Center.
It's not an overstatement to say that, on this night, this was Sam's house. In the final 67 seconds, with the Sixers clinging to a 96-93 lead, he blocked two shots, won a jump ball from Ryan Gomes and swept the final rebound of the evening after Rashad McCants missed a 28-foot, three-point attempt with 3.9 seconds remaining.
But his most dramatic contribution came with the Sixers up, 96-94. The Wolves came out of a timeout at 18.2 seconds and ran a play for rugged center Al Jefferson, who already had 22 points and 11 rebounds. Jefferson spun hard into the lane with a semi-hook, hoping to score and/or draw a foul. Dalembert, as he had been doing much of the evening, went airborne, slapping away the attempt at 7.9.
That left Andre Iguodala to knock down two free throws at 5.9 seconds, securing the Sixers' fourth victory in succession, their longest positive streak of the season.
And, as they've been doing during this run, they got contributions from various sources: Iguodala a box score-filler effort of 25 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals; Willie Green had 18 points and four assists; Andre Miller had 10 points, eight assists and three steals; and Lou Williams came back from a one-game absence to contribute five assists.
Even with all of that, the Sixers climbed to 9-13 the hard way. Not necessarily because of things they didn't do, but because, for them, there is no easy way, not even against an opponent that was falling to a subterranean 3-17.
"It was a grind-out game,'' coach Maurice Cheeks said. "We tried to separate ourselves and just couldn't get a lot of separation. But I think our guys hung in there and made shots at the end. Sam was doing what we ask him to do, in terms of rebounding and blocking shots. I thought he controlled the paint. Jefferson is a tough guard for us . . . but Sam pretty much guarded him by himself. And then [Iguodala] down the stretch was making shots we needed him to make.''
Dalembert and Iguodala accounted for 14 of the Sixers' 19 points in the fourth quarter.
"It looked like the vintage Sammy,'' said Williams, back after missing Monday night's victory over the Houston Rockets with a small fracture in his right big toe. "He protected the goal. We're starting to call him 'The Godfather.' Sam is one of those guys, you've got to stay in his head, stay in his head, to the point where he gets frustrated and tries to prove us wrong. That's what we've been doing, and getting the best results.''
Dalembert, who gained 17 pounds in the offseason in an effort to get stronger, said he has since dropped 22.
"I wanted to get bigger,'' he said wryly. "It didn't work for me.''
He has taken the ribbing and, most nights, kept on ticking.
"I'm going to have to stay on [my teammates], too,'' Dalembert said, relishing the opportunity to retaliate. "They're not consistent, some of them. Overall, we're always cracking jokes. They've always been on me because they think I have the potential to be a great player . . . I just want to be there for them.''
As in recent games, Cheeks used an expanded rotation, this time 10 of his 12 available men, and he had them playing up-tempo as much as possible. The Sixers finished with a 16-2 advantage in fastbreak points, led by as many as 12 and never trailed by more than three.
Afterward, they reveled in the block party.
"I wish he could be like Bill Russell sometimes, just catch it and bring it down,'' Reggie Evans offered. "But, hey, the way he's playing, I'll just take it. I'll take it all day . . .
"I'm the type of person who's not going to kiss Sam's butt. I let him know when he's doing good, and I let him know when he's not doing so good, because he doesn't really need a 'yes' man. I feel like he can be an All-Star in the East if he just sets his mind to it and goes out there and plays like he played tonight. He had a major impact. Basically, he won the game for us.'' *