LOS ANGELES - It's not often that the losing team in a game in the NBA Finals can take comfort in its defeat, but then, the title series has rarely seen a team like the Philadelphia 76ers, who seem not to know that they aren't supposed to be giving the Los Angeles Lakers a series.
Not merely content to steal Game 1, the Sixers nearly stunned the heavily favored and defending champion Lakers for a second time in three nights, nearly making up a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit at the Staples Center in Game 2.
As it turned out, the Lakers held off Philadelphia's mad charge to win, 98-89, and tie the best-of-seven series heading into tomorrow's Game 3 in Philadelphia, but not without learning another lesson about the heart and passion of the Sixers, just in time to avoid the embarrassment of falling into an 0-2 series hole.
"We scared them a little bit," said Philadelphia coach Larry Brown. "I had my summer league team out there a lot. If some of those summer league kids would get any respect, we would have been able to celebrate a little bit."
As it was, the feisty Sixers, who seem to take not only body shots on the court, but blows to their egos from a national media that doesn't understand how they're staying with the more talented Lakers, are shaking off each perceived slight with each passing game.
"It's the effort that we gave, not throwing in the towel," said Philadelphia guard Allen Iverson, whose 23 points were a far cry from the 48 he scored in Game 1.
"Knowing that a team that's supposed to dominate us, a team that's supposed to have swept us, almost didn't get out of here with a win, up 12 points with a little bit of time on the clock."
O'Neal, who piled up 44 points and 20 rebounds in the first game, was magnificent again last night, with 28 points, including 10 in a critical second-quarter run to get the Lakers back into the game and erase a seven-point deficit, then five more points in the third period, when Los Angeles broke the game open, with a 10-point advantage heading to the fourth quarter.
"We just wanted to ... come out and play with a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of intensity," said O'Neal, who also had 20 rebounds and eight blocked shots, which tied the record for a championship series game.
In addition to his points and board work, O'Neal handed out a game-high nine assists, mainly to Bryant, Brian Shaw and Ron Harper, who hit key jumpers out of double-teams of O'Neal, but none bigger than Derek Fisher's three-pointer off an O'Neal pass with 2:08 to go to slow the Philadelphia comeback, which had closed the gap to three, much of it with O'Neal on the bench with five fouls.
"I said [Wednesday], he's not only a great scorer on the post, he's a tremendous passer. That's what you get. You got to take some poison," said Brown. "He made some unbelievable plays."
And Bryant, who labored Wednesday through a 7-for-22 night, with just 15 points, bounced back with 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
"Kobe obviously got a little bit more room [last night]," said Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson. "He got some rhythm in his shot and he played a much better game."
Bryant hit a 20-foot jumper and a pair of free throws in the first three minutes to get the Lakers out to an 8-6 lead.
But the Sixers were getting an inside presence that they weren't expecting to have and didn't get in Game 1 as Dikembe Mutombo and Tyrone Hill stayed active on the glass, particularly on the offensive end.
As the interior opened, Iverson began to heat up, scoring on a drive, then hitting from the baseline, to give Philadelphia a 17-14 lead with 4:31 to go.
Los Angeles attempted a mini-run, with Bryant hitting a 20-footer on the left wing, along with a free throw and an alley-oop from O'Neal off a lob from Derek Fisher to retake the lead at 19-17.
Again, however, the Sixers came right back, Iverson hit a three-pointer with 1:47 to go in the quarter. The teams exchanged leads for the rest of the period, with the Lakers holding a 25-24 advantage at the end of a quarter off an 18-footer from Bryant, his 12th point of the period.
But, in the end, it took nearly the full breadth of O'Neal and Bryant's talents to hold off the Sixers, who took advantage of late foul trouble on O'Neal to begin driving the lane and slicing the Lakers' lead.
"They played with the same kind of intensity that we saw in the Milwaukee series, in the Toronto series," said Bryant. "They just keep coming. They're so competitive. They play hard and you have to respect that.
Perhaps, but someone apparently isn't, or at least not in the Sixers' view. Iverson, the league's regular season Most Valuable Player, made significant hay of the fact that he didn't shoot many free throws, particularly in the fourth quarter. But he missed all four of his attempts, and the team missed 10 of 16 foul shots in the quarter.
With the win, the Lakers not only regained their footing in the series, but can now seize the home-court advantage back by winning one of three games in Philadelphia next week, as well as guaranteeing a return to Staples Center for Game 6, provided they don't sweep the Sixers on the road.
But to hear the Sixers tell it, the brooms could belong to them.
"Do I think [the Sixers] can sweep in Philadelphia? Definitely. Why not?" said Iverson, who engaged Bryant in some late-game trash-talking. "Why would I think any other way? I owe that to myself, to my teammates, coaching staff, fans in Philadelphia and everybody that cares about the 76ers.
"Yeah, we think we can win three in a row. It's everybody else that doesn't think we can. If you've seen the last two games, we've kind of proved that. Nobody is going to walk over top of us."
FG FT Reb
Philadelphia Min M-A M-A O-T A PF PTS
Jones 15 1-2 0-0 0-3 0 1 3
Hill 22 1-3 0-0 1-5 0 5 2
Mutombo 36 5-12 6-6 4-13 1 3 16
Iverson 47 10-29 0-4 0-4 3 3 23
McKie 40 6-17 0-2 4-6 6 3 14
Snow 28 4-9 4-4 1-2 4 1 12
Geiger 13 2-4 0-0 1-2 0 1 4
MacCulloch 16 5-9 3-4 3-5 0 3 13
Bell 18 0-1 2-6 0-2 1 3 2
Buford 1 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
Ollie 4 0-1 0-0 0-0 1 0 0
Totals 240 34-87 15-26 14-42 16 23 89
Percentages: FG .391, FT .577. 3-point goals: 6-15, .400 (Iverson 3-10, McKie 2-4, Jones 1-1). Team Rebounds: 10. Blocked shots: 5 (Hill 3, Mutombo, Jones). Turnovers: 11 (Iverson 3, Snow 3, McKie 2, Mutombo, MacCulloch, Bell). Steals: 9 (Bell 3, McKie 2, Snow 2, Iverson, Mutombo). Technical fouls: Iverson, 12:00 fourth. Illegal defense: None.
FG FT Reb
L.A. Lakers Min M-A M-A O-T A PF PTS
Fox 28 0-4 0-0 1-6 2 4 0
Grant 18 2-7 2-2 2-5 2 0 6
O'Neal 45 12-19 4-10 8-20 9 5 28
Bryant 47 11-23 8-8 1-8 6 4 31
Fisher 34 5-11 2-2 0-0 3 4 14
Shaw 25 1-7 1-2 0-5 5 3 4
Horry 26 4-6 0-0 3-7 1 3 8
Lue 10 1-1 0-0 0-0 0 1 2
Harper 7 2-3 1-2 0-1 1 0 5
Totals 240 38-81 18-26 15-52 29 24 98
Percentages: FG .469, FT .692. 3-point goals: 4-16, .250 (Fisher 2-5, Bryant 1-2, Shaw 1-5, Horry 0-1, Harper 0-1, Fox 0-2). Team rebounds: 11. Blocked shots: 13 (O'Neal 8, Bryant 2, Grant 2, Fox). Turnovers: 16 (O'Neal 5, Fox 5, Bryant 2, Shaw 2, Fisher, Lue). Steals: 7 (Bryant 2, Fisher 2, Horry, O'Neal, Shaw). Technical fouls: O'Neal, 12:00 fourth. Illegal defense: None.
Philadelphia 24 23 20 22 - 89
L.A. Lakers 25 24 28 21 - 98
A-18,997 (18,997). T-2:39. Officials-Bernie Fryer, Steve Javie, Ronnie Nunn.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Philadelphia 76ers
(Best of seven)
(Series tied 1-1)
Game 1: Phila., 107-101, OT
Last night: L.A., 98-89
Tomorrow: at Phila., 7:30
Wednesday: at Phila., 9 p.m.
June 15: at Phila., 9 p.m.
*June 18: at L.A., 9 p.m.
*June 20: at L.A., 9 p.m.
*-If necessary TV: Chs. 11, 4