This Series Might Be Tied, but Confident 76ers Have Edge

The bleeding has stopped.

The gasping has not.

In moments of both drama and disillusion Friday, Shaquille O'Neal pounded on the Laker chest and Kobe Bryant opened the mouth and Derek Fisher worked the nose.

And still they went blue-faced into the night, their dominance now officially stunted by doubt.

The Lakers won Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, 98-89.

Yet it was the 76ers who clapped and hooted as they left the Staples Center floor.

The Lakers have tied the series at one game apiece.

Yet it was the 76ers who felt like they left town on a broom.

"We gonna give you your money's worth," said Philly's Aaron McKie after another 2 1/2 hours of squeaking shoes and sweat.

But the Lakers didn't bargain for this.

They say now that they did--"We knew it would be a dogfight," said Horace Grant--but they really didn't.

Nobody around here did.

But everybody knows now.

For all the messages sent by the 76ers Friday in a game they nearly stole down the stretch, none was clearer than the one issued by their lone fan in the stands underneath one of the baskets.

Midway through the fourth quarter, he stood and pointed to the floor and shouted, "These ain't the damn San Antonio Spurs out there."

The Laker fans only looked at the guy and shrugged.

No, these ain't.

And yeah, it's serious.

In some ways, this victory was every bit as stunning as Wednesday's Game 1 loss.

Because this was supposed to be where the 76ers crawled back underneath their graffiti-covered rock.

This was supposed to be where Allen Iverson stopped blabbering about heart and Pat Croce shut his trap completely.

With the Lakers sufficiently scared, this was supposed to be about them delivering a 15-point knockout, the first of four . . .

Well, um, guess what?

"There isn't going to be a knockout," said Rick Fox.

And guess what else?

"One of our trademarks is going for the kill," said Kobe Bryant, "But one thing we have to realize is, this team isn't going to die."

The only thing dying out there was the idea that the Lakers could still win this series easily.

Now one must wonder, can they still win it at all?

They certainly will travel to Philadelphia wondering if they can win two of three in a place that Iverson can set aflame simply by cupping his hand to his ear.

And they certainly must be uneasy about the idea of coming home and enduring a seventh game against a team that has already won two of them.

In the final moments Friday, with Iverson yapping at midcourt about the 76ers' message, Bryant finally erupted and shouted back.

"It was him trying to fire his team up . . . which he's been doing all playoffs," Bryant said. "[And] me saying, 'I don't care. We don't care. We gonna come and we gonna play.'

"We understand you guys are gonna play hard in Philadelphia, but we're coming too. We just have to get it on."

If he says it enough, maybe some of his teammates will start believing him.

They certainly didn't play like it while struggling to hold off the 76ers in the first half, and then again in the fretful final minutes.

"I just want to leave here thinking it's not a mismatch, that we have a chance," said 76er Coach Larry Brown.

Um, no problem there.

With seven minutes remaining in the game, the Lakers led by 13 points.

But then, trying to dramatically end the game on the spot, they nearly lost it and ended the series.

Five possessions, five turnovers.

A loose-ball foul by O'Neal, who blocked eight shots and grabbed 20 rebounds and sometimes doesn't know when to quit.

A charging foul by Bryant.

A bad pass by Brian Shaw.

A bad pass by Tyronn Lue.

A steal from Fisher.

By the time they looked up, the collegiately relentless 76ers had closed the gap to six, and Phil Jackson was so upset, he actually called timeouts.


"I thought it was important to get across to the team that one shot is not going to bury Philadelphia," Jackson said, later adding, "They're not gonna play the scoreboard, they're gonna play the game, the clock. We're looking for that home run."

And most of the team is sitting in the dugout spitting seeds while waiting for their two best players to hit it.

Remember earlier this year when, distracted by all the feuding, they simply stood around watching Kobe and Shaq? That's sort of happening again.

This time the problem is not the feuding, it's the befuddling 76er defense, and it's something that needs to be fixed.

While the highlight shows will argue that it was Fisher's three-pointer and Ron Harper's sneaky layup that finally finished the 76ers, it was also Iverson's two missed foul shots and Eric Snow's short missed jumper.

"We ended up taking a game that was relatively benign and making it pretty exciting out there," Jackson acknowledged, later adding. "We're probably fortunate Philadelphia missed a lot of foul shots in that stretch."

There's nothing benign, however, about a box score that shows the two Laker starting forwards combining for two baskets and five turnovers, with Fox giving the Lakers one scoreless starter in each of the first two games.

Indeed, as a team, in the only statistic that counts in these Finals, the Lakers are one for two.

With their chances of winning a second consecutive NBA championship decidedly falling to 50-50.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at:

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