Shaquille O’Neal leaned down to the microphone and looked across the room, and perhaps across two months and five days of something close to perfection, a stretch of dynamic basketball that put the Lakers into the NBA Finals against what all agreed was an overmatched team.
Postseason perfection was dead, gone in a rain of jumpers by Allen Iverson, gone in a defense more frantic than their own, gone, perhaps, in a nine-day layoff. It took an overtime, and 48 points by Iverson, and a handful of their own poor decisions and missed free throws, but the Lakers suddenly found themselves looking up, not at history, but at the very plucky Philadelphia 76ers.
“Now,” O’Neal said, “it’s a series.”
More than they know, perhaps.
The 76ers defeated the favored Lakers, 107-101, in Game 1 of the best-of-seven NBA Finals on Wednesday night at Staples Center, reclaiming the home-court advantage they lost on the last day of the regular season and reminding the Lakers that this championship won’t be preordained.
O’Neal scored 44 points and took 20 rebounds, but he missed 12 free throws, including seven of his last 10. It was the second time in Finals history that opposing players scored 40 or more points in the same game.
What the Lakers will remember, for a day at least, is that Iverson scored seven of the 76ers’ last 11 points, and that as a result the Lakers blew a five-point lead with three minutes left in the overtime. From a 99-94 deficit, the 76ers scored nine consecutive points while the Lakers had two turnovers and two point-blank misses.
Kobe Bryant, who was seven for 22 from the field and scored only 15 points, less than half his playoff average, brought the Lakers to within 103-101 with a 20-foot turnaround with 31 seconds remaining, but the Lakers didn’t score again.
“There’s some broke people out there,” Iverson said.
The Lakers hadn’t lost since April 1. The winning streak--19 games, the last 11 in the playoffs--fueled rampant predictions of a Laker sweep, of a perfect 15-0 postseason, the first in league history. While the Lakers held their palms down and swore they would be content with a victory in Game 1, and then to go from there, the 76ers seemed to find fury in the predictions.
Asked what Game 1 had wrought, Iverson said, “We know we can win.”
Regulation time ran down with Laker reserve guard Tyronn Lue desperately denying the ball to Iverson, and Eric Snow, exasperated, forcing a long, off-balance shot from the left wing. It hit the rim hard, and the Lakers exhaled.
Thirty-four seconds before, Dikembe Mutombo hit the back of the rim on two free throws, either one of which might have won it for the 76ers in regulation.
Snow scored the final points of regulation on a driving layup with more than a minute remaining. It tied the score, 94-94. When the Lakers scored the first five points of overtime, it appeared their streak would survive Iverson’s 48, and Mutombo’s 16 rebounds, O’Neal’s free-throw misses, and their own 19 turnovers, many against the 76ers’ pressure defense.
But Raja Bell made a scoop shot in the lane, Iverson made two free throws and then a three-pointer from the left wing and then a 21-footer from the right corner. On that, he stepped dramatically over Lue, who had fallen. Lue had hounded Iverson for half of the third quarter and all of the fourth, succeeding in disturbing Iverson where Bryant and Derek Fisher had failed. The Laker starting backcourt, so strong in 11 previous playoff games, combined to shoot seven for 26. Fisher missed all four shots and did not score in 23 minutes.
Game 2 is Friday night.
“We might have shocked a lot of people,” 76er forward Tyrone Hill said. “I don’t think we shocked ourselves. We knew we had a lot of confidence coming in. They eat like us and put their clothes on like us, so it wasn’t about that.”
It had been so long since the Lakers looked like a fallible basketball team that Staples Center ran quiet, and the crowd was given to periodic, desperate standing ovations.
The place hung on every O’Neal free throw, and the Lakers clung to O’Neal, and every whistle seemed to take the breath out of the game. Philadelphia’s defense was frantic, and Bryant could not penetrate, but the Lakers made a big run at the end of the third quarter that brought them to within one point. Mutombo was on the bench with foul trouble, and O’Neal scored 14 points in that run, leading to the taut fourth quarter.
It wasn’t until the overtime before the Lakers lost their momentum, the momentum of a game and of a 19-game run.
“I’m kind of relieved that it’s over in some way,” Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. “But it does put some pressure on us to get a win on our home court. We’ve got to go out on Friday night and find a way to get this series tied up. The streak was great, and now it’s time to get back to business of playing ball here in this series.”
By midway through the second quarter, Iverson had the whole thing going. He was hitting his fall-aways. He found somebody in the second row to ride, and by the end of the first half he was saying hello to friends in the crowd.
His shots seemed to hang in the air forever, and when they fell they barely moved the net, and Lakers stole quick glances at each other.
Bryant’s mouth hung open. And Fisher, an offensive threat in the first three rounds, wasn’t a factor.
It might not have been the 76ers best playoff half. It might not have been the Lakers’ worst. But it reinforced the 76ers’ notions they could play with the Lakers, and it had to have jarred the Lakers. Iverson scored 18 points in the second quarter, sending the Lakers off to serious adjustment talk. They trailed, 56-50, their largest home halftime deficit of the playoffs.
The Lakers took the floor to a standing ovation and massive expectations.
Fisher stood across from Iverson, and Bryant went to Aaron McKie. Mutombo matched up with O’Neal, of course, but had no early help. So, O’Neal went right to the crossovers and hesitations and spin moves.
There weren’t six minutes gone when 76er Coach Larry Brown called his first time out, the one that was supposed to slow the first Laker run of the series. By then, the Lakers had gone from 5-2 down to 16-5 up, a 14-0 rush that grew to 16-0 and an 18-5 lead.
Bryant didn’t take his first shot until more than halfway through the quarter, and finished the first quarter with four shots. Iverson had 13, and made six.
Ever resilient, the 76ers came back with a 17-5 run, and when Iverson made another fall-away 21-footer to start the second quarter, they had a 24-23 lead.
For expanded coverage of the NBA Finals, including live updates, photo galleries and postgame interviews, visit The Times’ Web site: latimes.com/nbaplayoffs.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Alook at the how the Lakers blew a 99-94 lead with 3:00 left in OT:
3:00--O’Neal makes one of two free throws. LAKERS: 99-94
2:44--Snow turnover, Lakers get ball
2:40--Horry called for offensive foul
2:20--Bell makes layup. LAKERS: 99-96
1:52--O’Neal misses five-foot jump shot.
1:46--Iverson makes two free throws. LAKERS: 99-98
1:27--Lue misses layup.
1:19--Iverson makes 26-foot three-pointer. 76ERS: 101-99
1:05--Fox bad pass turnover.
48.2--Iverson makes 16-foot jumper. 76ERS: 103-99
34.2--Bryant makes short jumper. 76ERS: 103-101
10.5--Snow makes 16-foot jumper. 76ERS: 105-101
5.1--Fox misses layup.
4.4--Mutombo makes two free throws. 76ERS: 107-101