It was going to be frantic. It could only be.
But by the end of Game 2, Kobe Bryant and Iverson stood near mid-court, jaw to jaw, edge to edge, Iverson telling Bryant what's next, Bryant telling him so what.
The NBA Finals have become that, the Lakers' 98-89 winners Friday night at Staples Center, the 76ers emboldened by their split in Los Angeles, the whole thing as taut as the sudden fury between the star guards.
The best-of-seven series is tied at a game apiece. Game 3 is Sunday in Philadelphia.
"Nobody's going to walk over the top of us," Iverson said. "Won't happen."
Meantime, the Lakers got an idea of what it would take to do it, to win a game in the face of 76er grit and resistance. They went to Shaquille O'Neal, who scored 28 points, took 20 rebounds and tied a Finals record with eight blocked shots. The Lakers blocked 13, a Finals record. O'Neal also had nine assists.
They went to Bryant, whose miserable Game 1 gave way to something more recognizable. He scored 31 points and had eight rebounds and six assists, flowing again from offense to defense and back, penetrating again, and finding open teammates again.
"I knew this was going to be a different game," O'Neal said. "My guards played big. They played pretty big defense, shot the ball well. Coach wanted me to protect the basket more. We felt they were getting too many easy shots in the first half. So I just tried to step up my defense in the second half."
Finally, they went to a more desperate, more physical defense on Iverson, who scored 23 points on 29 shots, two days after scoring 48 on 41. When he wasn't talking to Bryant, Iverson usually was lobbying referee Steve Javie, because Derek Fisher and Tyronn Lue and Bryant were too close and too rough, he believed. He had four free throws and missed them all. In Game 1, he was nine for nine.
"I don't know, it's just I don't see the respect out there," Iverson said. "I can't remember the last time I only went to the free throw line twice. You know, as much punishment as I take out there, things that I go through out there, I just can't remember.
"I mean, as aggressive as I am on the basketball court, just something was real fishy about that."
Iverson did not attempt his first free throw until early in the fourth quarter.
So at the end, when the Lakers scored nine of the last 12 points, when they snuffed the last bit of 76er hope, maybe that was why Iverson couldn't resist Bryant, why referees and teammates stepped between the two. And, finally, why Iverson grinned and clapped at the end, as if this was the best part of all. They'll go to Philadelphia, where Bryant will be derided, where Iverson will cup his hand to his ear and ask for more, where the next three games will be as raw as any the Lakers have played this season.
"Ask him," Iverson said. "It's basketball, man."
"With Allen, you know, he's doing whatever he has to do to inspire his team," Bryant said. "I don't care. I really don't. We're here, we're the world champions. No matter how inspired your team is, the championship has to come through Los Angeles."
Bryant said he figured there's more out there, he's sure.
"It was him trying to fire his team up, which he was doing all playoffs," he said. "It was me saying I don't care. We don't care. We're coming to play. We're going to go to Philadelphia and get it on."
The Lakers played to have a chance in Philadelphia, to go in on something other than a straight backpedal. Only two teams have come back from a 2-0 deficit to win the NBA title--the 1969 Boston Celtics beat the Lakers in seven games and the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers beat the 76ers in six.
Eventually, Ron Harper said, it would only be personal. Too much on the line, he said. Too much to lose. The Lakers play to repeat, the 76ers to win respect they'll never believe they have.
"This is for the gold, though, right?" said Harper, who scored three points in the final two minutes, two on a short jumper that gave the Lakers a 94-86 lead. "So, it can't be fun. You can't have friends out there. Every Finals turns that way."
Fisher had Iverson in the first quarter, and Iverson was three for nine from the floor, one for four from behind the arc. Bryant and Lue took their turns on him in the second quarter, and he was two for six from the field and missed two three-point attempts. By the end, Iverson had missed seven of 10 three-point attempts. While four other 76ers scored in double figures, including 16 by Dikembe Mutombo, the 76ers shot only 39.1% from the floor.
The Lakers scored 28 third-quarter points, took a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter, and still scrambled to beat back Iverson and Co. O'Neal played with five fouls and Harper played seven minutes, all spent trying to guide the Lakers through full-court pressure that threatened their lead.
"I kept telling the guys in the fourth quarter, [and the] multiple timeouts I took are uncharacteristic of the way I like to coach a game, but I thought it was important to get across to the team that one shot is not going to bury Philadelphia," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. "They're not going to play the scoreboard, they're going to play the game, the clock. We're looking for that one home run. That's really what got us into trouble."
Mutombo fawned over all of it, even in defeat.
"You can just see our heart," Mutombo said.
Maybe they'd play through that too.
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)
Laker center Shaquille O'Neal tied the record for most blocked shots in an NBA Finals game:
8--Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers vs. Philadelphia, June 8, 2001
8--Patrick Ewing, New York vs. Houston, June 17, 1994
8--Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston vs. Boston, June 5, 1986
8--Bill Walton, Portland vs. Philadelphia, June 5, 1977
7--Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston at New York, June 12, 1994
7--Patrick Ewing, New York vs. Houston, June 12, 1994
7--Dennis Johnson, Seattle at Washington, May 28, 1978
SHAQ IN PLAYOFFS
A look at O'Neal's per-game average in each round of the playoffs:
First round (vs. Portland)
27.0 points 15.7 rebounds
Second round (vs. Sacramento)
33.3 points 17.3 rebounds
Conf. finals (vs. San Antonio)
27.0 points 13.0 rebounds
NBA Finals (vs. Philadelphia)
36.0 points 20.0 rebounds