76ers Put End to All the Talk

Put away the arguments. Let's not talk any more about whether Allen Iverson deserved to be the NBA's most valuable player this year. Can we now forget about the sweep, the first-ever Lakers-never-lose playoff sweep? How about waiting on turning Kobe Bryant into Michael Jordan?

It's over. This is a real competition, to be played on the court and not on talk radio, to be played against a real opponent and not against history.

The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Lakers, 107-101, in overtime Wednesday in the first game of the NBA Finals at Staples Center.

The streak is over. Invincibility is gone. The 76ers showed something the Lakers haven't seen in awhile. They punched back. They fought hard, fought constantly, fought long and well.

What the Lakers should have learned from Game 1 is that fighting hard is worth something. What the Lakers should have learned from Game 1 is that what the 76ers have done for a month is fight for every victory, every point. Suiting up nine sound players has been a fight, holding home-court advantage has been a fight. So the 76ers aren't going to stop fighting now.

Among the Lakers, only Shaquille O'Neal understood about the fight and finally dragged his teammates along. Shaq was willing to engage the battle. If Allen Iverson was going to score 30 points in the first half, O'Neal was going to score 23 in the second half and the first basket in overtime. O'Neal finished with 44 points and the exhausted Iverson with 48.

It was a spent Iverson who found an extra bit of jump in his legs when it mattered most, after the Lakers had gone ahead by five in overtime. Iverson scored a crucial three-point basket and then another perfect jumper in 22 seconds.

We can't say it enough.

Allen Iverson, Allen Iverson, Allen Iverson, Allen Iverson.

Did we mention Allen Iverson?

If Bryant is the next Jordan, then who is Iverson? Who is the player who scored 30 points in the first two quarters, who forced Bryant into trying crazy things, who sucked Bryant into a macho battle of one-upmanship? Bryant lost that battle badly.

And then the 76ers must have missed the memo that had been sent to Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio. You know, the one about quitting, giving up, facing the inevitable and retiring quietly to a corner and saying how great the Lakers are?

The Lakers put together a 16-0 first-quarter run. The 76ers had been coming off two consecutive seven-game series. They had survived Vince Carter's last-second miss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, or else Toronto might have been here. They survived Glenn Robinson missing an open eight-foot jump shot that would have won Game 5 in Philadelphia. If Robinson had made that shot, Milwaukee probably would have been here.

Plus there are the injuries. Eric Snow is playing on a broken ankle. Dikembe Mutombo has a broken finger. Iverson has bruises, pulls, sprains, practically everywhere. Matt Geiger, Public Enemy No. 1 in Philadelphia for wearing street clothes in five of the seven games against Milwaukee because of a bad hamstring, put on his uniform Wednesday and scored eight points in eight minutes in the first half.

So the 76ers are bruised, broken and exhausted and the Lakers drop 16 in a row on them, take an 18-5 lead and the game is over, right? Iverson missed five shots and had a turnover in that run and whenever O'Neal touched the ball, Laker fans were yelling "MVP, MVP."

And maybe that was the problem, hearing for 10 days that you are the best team ever, that you have the best two players ever and that you will win the next four games to complete the first-ever playoff sweep. If that's all you hear at the mall, the cleaners, the restaurant, from the neighbors, on the radio and TV, then you might start to believe it.

When you sit at home and watch the 76ers scramble, scratch, claw, barely hang on in one game, lose the next, when you see all the tape, the walking casts, see Iverson sit out a game because he says, with tears in his voice, that he is "hurting his team," how can you not be dreaming about the victory parade?

Meanwhile, the 76ers have heard all this too. They come to Los Angeles and find the world has given the trophy to the Lakers in a sweep. They read how Phil Jackson thinks O'Neal is the MVP, how Bryant will destroy Iverson, how Mutombo, a star against Milwaukee, will be a long, tall exclamation point to O'Neal's jams and fancy slams.

So the Lakers waited until Philadelphia had a 15-point lead, 73-58, with 5:23 left in the third quarter, before officially returning from the 10-day vacation.

Defense would be needed and defense was finally played by the Lakers. There were 76er turnovers and bad shots. Geiger could score over O'Neal but he sure couldn't guard Shaq. By the end of the third quarter the 76ers were ahead by only 79-77.

The 76ers still were ahead by two, 92-90, with 4:10 left in regulation. But Geiger had fouled out and Mutombo had five fouls. O'Neal was relentless and Philadelphia was defenseless against him.

Even when the Lakers finally got the lead back, for the first time since the second quarter, 94-92, on a Shaq slam with 1:57 left, the 76ers fought.

Snow, broken ankle and all, wiggled free for a layup to tie the score with 1:38 left. Iverson was so exhausted he had no legs left to shoot, but when he missed, Mutombo rebounded and was fouled with 34 seconds left. He could have put the 76ers ahead. Mutombo missed both free throws.

Down the stretch in overtime, the 76ers didn't.

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Diane Pucin can be reached at

diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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