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8 Upper

Tough Enough?

By Tom Scocca | Posted 6/6/2001

On June 3, in and around game seven of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals, the Philadelphia 76ers were part of a rare and perplexing phenomenon in sports hype. It was like something out of particle physics or advanced cosmology: As the Sixers, regular-season Eastern Conference leaders, took the floor against the second-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, the cycle of hype caught up with--and passed--itself. Tomorrow's hype folded back around on today's.

Simultaneously and nonsensically, the Sixers were an overdog and an underdog. They were an over-underdog. They were too good for the Bucks; if they lost to the Bucks, after leading the East and winning most of the league's individual awards, they'd have gone down in disgrace, a study in wasted potential. If they did beat the Bucks--well, then, they'd still be nowhere near good enough for the Lakers.

As it happened, of course, Philly won. The continuum unwrinkled. The Sixers are pure underdog now, the last and possibly least obstacle between the Lakers and a second straight title. The main question before the public is whether the Sixers can beat Los Angeles even once, preventing the Lakers from recording an unheard-of 15-0 sweep through the playoffs.

How does a team featuring the league MVP and the coach, defensive player, and sixth man of the year turn into the Belgian army overnight? Part of the trouble for Philadelphia lies in what those prizes really mean. The commentators who were cudgeling the Sixers with their awards during the Bucks series--How can you have all those assets and still blow it?--were willfully misinterpreting the case. Allen Iverson won the MVP and Larry Brown won coach of the year because when people pictured the Sixers without Iverson and Brown, they saw the Golden State Warriors, or maybe the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

The Lakers were in the opposite situation. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant essentially knocked each other out of the MVP running this year--take either one away, and the Lakers would have gotten along just fine with the other. Till Los Angeles got its act together in April, in fact, it wasn't clear that the benefits of having two stars outweighed the damage from having them feuding all the time.

But the Lakers did get their act together. There's no sense in even trying to stack up superlatives to describe what's happened since. When they tip off against Philadelphia tonight, June 6, it will have been more than two months since they last lost a game. A game. They have not just swept into the finals, they have done it against the Trail Blazers, Kings, and Spurs--three teams that seemed, at different points this season, to be potential champions themselves. And the Lakers crushed them all.

So how do the Sixers, narrow survivors of back-to-back seven-game series in the weaker East, stand a chance? The simplest theory is your basic Goliath one: Anything that looks this lopsided can't be for real. Heed the '85 Villanova Wildcats, the '88 Los Angeles Dodgers, Rulon Gardner--nobody is unbeatable. It's a little tough to believe this, though, after what just happened to the San Antonio Spurs.

Then there's the historical-reference theory. The other time the Lakers went 11-0 on their way to the finals, back in 1988, they got beaten by the Detroit Pistons--like the Sixers, a hard-slugging East team coming off a grueling conference-final series. Like the Sixers, the Pistons were a defense-first team; like the Sixers, they were led by a tiny, indomitable guard who could outscore the other team singlehandedly if he needed to. But the parallels peter out after that. The East was the top conference then, with the Pistons clawing out a space between a lingering Celtics dynasty and the fast-rising Bulls. And the Lakers were undone less by hubris or complacency than by a crippling injury to Magic Johnson's hamstring.

Still, there is the chance this year's Lakers may be complacent. Like a football team that's always playing with a lead, they have not weathered even a hard-fought game in weeks. The Sixers, meanwhile, have been getting punched, leg-whipped, elbowed, and chop-blocked through the playoffs--and have been doing the same in return. It seems presumptuous for the Lakers to talk about sweeping a team whose game stories have included the words "swallowing blood."

The two things are intimately related: Iverson, who missed game three against the Bucks with a bruised tailbone, was so battered he spent most of the series like some El Cid of the hardwood, incapacitated but still in the action. Through the third quarter of game six, his numbers were nightmarish: 40-for-141 from the floor, a .284 shooting percentage. He was 28 points below the old Iverson Line--points equal to shots, the border between one-man heroics and destructive selfishness.

If the Lakers' stars had played that badly in a series, the Lakers would have been dead. But the Sixers were still in it. And suddenly Iverson was hitting, and hitting and hitting and hitting. Over the next five quarters, he scored 70 points on 24-for-45 shooting--26 in the fourth quarter of game six, to shake the Bucks' confidence, and then 44 to put them away in the clincher. He hit from the lane, he hit from the baseline. He hit from deep outside, bouncing away from a double-team, with the clock expiring in the third quarter--the shot that iced the series. The Lakers have been playing their best for two months now. But the Sixers, if they're lucky, are just getting started.

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