The stage was set for the Philadelphia 76ers to collapse and Coach Larry Brown decided to roll the dice.
With his team's 15-point lead being chopped up by the Lakers and Dikembe Mutombo on the bench with three fouls and 6:18 remaining in the third quarter, Brown chose to keep his defensive-minded center out of the game and take his chances.
"Yes, it surprised me. I was very surprised," said Mutombo, Philadelphia's best defense against the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal. "I know for me to continue to improve as a great defender, I have to learn how to play in foul trouble. But [Brown] told me that he needs me in the fourth quarter and I looked at the clock and it was like seven minutes left. It seemed like it was too much and then they made their run."
Behind O'Neal's powerful inside game against backup center Matt Geiger, the Lakers made more than a run. They blitzed the 76ers, cutting their lead from 73-58 to 79-77 by the time the third quarter ended.
But Brown knew differently.
"We had the lead and I didn't think [Mutombo] had a chance to finish the game out," Brown said. "I just concluded that with the amount of minutes that he had to play that we just needed to bide our time. I thought Geiger was playing pretty good.
"But Shaquille was dominant on both ends. He got every rebound and they were going to him so much, I just wanted Dikembe down the stretch. I just thought that was our best chance to win the game."
Once Mutombo returned in the fourth quarter, Philadelphia got its flow back. The 76ers withstood the Lakers' third-quarter rally and battled them even throughout the final 12 minutes of regulation, despite not getting much offensive production from leading scorer Allen Iverson.
That's when Philadelphia's heart took over. Instead of folding, the 76ers hung tough and the rest is history.
"I don't think anyone from the Lakers said they were going to sweep us," Mutombo said. "It was you guys [the reporters] who wrote in your scriptures day after day saying that we were going to be swept . . . But we have been playing night after night, with injuries and everything, because we have strong heart. I don't know why people were trying to write us off."
Philadelphia actually could have been run off the court in the first quarter when the Lakers ran off 16 consecutive points to take an early 18-5 run. But again, the 76ers didn't fold.
"Our goal is to just play harder than teams," said point guard Eric Snow, who made a couple of clutch baskets down the stretch of the fourth quarter and overtime. "When we have an Allen Iverson who can change a game offensively and a Dikembe Mutombo who can change it defensively. That always gives us a chance to win."
Starting power forward Tyrone Hill said the 76ers' biggest problem early was their poor shooting. Not the Lakers.
"Whenever you are on the road, you are going to fall behind when you don't shoot the ball well," Hill said. "We rushed it a little bit but we hung in there and we started to make some defensive plays. We started trapping a little bit and they started missing some and we started making some."
By the time the Lakers made their run in the second half, Philadelphia was just getting its second wind. The 76ers love to pride themselves on their toughness and they started to wear the Lakers down when it counted.
"You can tell they were a little fatigued," Hill said.
So now it is up to the Lakers to adjust to the 76ers.