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8 Upper

At a Loss

By Tom Scocca | Posted 6/13/2001

You don't give Robert Horry an open look from three-point range with the game on the line. You just don't. I know I'm just a spectator here, and Larry Brown is a coaching genius--and Larry Brown is a coaching genius, to be sure--but I was pulling for the Houston Rockets in the NBA finals back in '94 and '95, and maybe Brown wasn't watching those years. Horry was a Rocket at the time, and then, as now, he could only do four or five things on a basketball court. But one of them happens to be that, if you set him up for a wide-open three-pointer at clutch time in the NBA Finals, he will knock that shot down. Every time. If you're going to have a small set of specialties, that's a good one to have.

So Brown's Philadelphia 76ers, with the finals tied at one game apiece and the Los Angeles Lakers clinging to an 89-88 lead, screwed up and let Kobe Bryant get the inbound pass, and then compounded that screwup by panicking and sending their whole defense scrambling after Bryant--leaving Horry all alone in the left corner with 47 seconds to go. Ballgame. Short of throwing the ball in the Lakers' basket themselves, the Sixers could not have made a more self-destructive play.

There is at least some comfort for the Sixers in that fact: They blew it. They are down to the Lakers 2-1 not because Los Angeles is killing them but because they're killing themselves. That Lakers superteam, the one that laid low the mightiest powers of the mighty Western Conference and needed only to sweep the Sixers for a perfect 15-0 postseason--those Lakers still haven't shown up.

Actually, that's not quite true. For all the talk about the Lakers' being rusty after their week-long wait for the finals, L.A. came out looking sharp and dangerous in game one. The Lakers were loose and fluent, picking the Sixers apart with perfectly timed passes, rolling out to an 18-5 lead. And then the Sixers smacked them in the chops. On offense, Allen Iverson broke Derek Fisher down so thoroughly that Phil Jackson had to bench him out of mercy. On defense, the Sixers harassed the Lakers into hurrying their passes till their split-second timing was shot. By the second quarter, it was impossible to tell that one of these teams was supposed to sweep the other; by the end of overtime, of course, after the Sixers rallied from five points down to six points up in two and a half minutes, the Lakers weren't in a position to sweep anybody.

Then, in game two, it looked as if the Sixers might do the sweeping. Most things had gone Philly's way in game one: Iverson hit his shots, Bryant played badly, and Shaquille O'Neal put up one of the most fatiguing and hollow 44-point games possible. All that turned around in the second game--Iverson went cold, as he does, and Bryant and O'Neal both had brilliant games--yet L.A. still couldn't put the Sixers away. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers were reeling in terror and exhaustion, fouling the Sixers nearly every time down the floor. They were only saved by Philadelphia's incompetence, as the Sixers bricked 10 of 16 free throws in the final quarter.

So the Sixers flew back to Philly with the series tied when they could have been up 2-0 and in command. And they went right out and staged a repeat of game two: The Lakers pulled ahead with big performances by O'Neal and Bryant; the Sixers came furiously charging after them down the stretch. Then, just when the Sixers were about to seize the lead, Horry popped up in the corner.

By now, the Sixers are used to surviving setbacks. They dropped a home game to Indiana in the first round, then got stretched to seven games by the Raptors and the Bucks. Iverson can--and will--drag them to defeat on his bad nights, as surely as he carries them to victory on his good ones. Their injuries keep mounting, absurdly (Aaron McKie, already playing on a fractured ankle, sprained his thumb in game three), so that Brown is constantly rewriting his game plan to feature his least-crippled players. It is thrilling to see them fight back and prosper.

But enough is enough. During game three, I realized I had seen this team before. They're the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies. Curt Schilling was Allen Iverson then, and John Kruk was Dikembe Mutombo. Those Phils were plucky, relentless, and ungainly; they stunned the Atlanta Braves in the National League playoffs and made the World Series, despite a pathetic defense and an atrocious bullpen. They backed the dynastic Toronto Blue Jays into a corner. And then, betrayed by that bullpen, they saw their luck run out.

The Sixers have shown they belong on the court with the Lakers. Iverson had as many rebounds as O'Neal in game three, and more assists than Bryant. Mutombo has the skill and stature to take on O'Neal in the lane; unlike in most of O'Neal's matchups, when the Laker center elbows Mutombo in the face the refs call the foul against O'Neal. On the sideline, Brown has cracked Jackson's studied aplomb, forcing the L.A. coach to do the grubby work of pulling players and calling time-outs. Yet the Lakers are up 2-1. It would be a waste if the Sixers are content with proving their point. They're good enough to win a title.

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