Philadelphia Story One of Grit

OK, now it's a series.

That's what Shaquille O'Neal said after Game 1, but let's face it, the Lakers may still have been OK in their minds but on the scoreboard they weren't looking too good until finally grinding one out Friday night.

Of course, the Philadelphia 76ers went out in their inimitable style, cutting a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit to three before falling, 98-89, after which Allen Iverson walked off, clapping and high-fiving teammates . . . just as he did at Milwaukee, where the 76ers cut a 33-point lead to less than 10 in Game 6 before triumphing at home in Game 7.

"It's the effort that we gave," Iverson said afterward from behind his sunglasses, cradling his young daughter and his sleeping son in the interview room.

"It's not throwing in the towel, knowing that a team that was supposed to dominate us, a team that was supposed to sweep us, almost didn't get out of here with a win, 12 points up [13 actually], with a little bit of time on the clock."

Give the 76ers this: When the NBA Finals started, they were supposed to be David facing Goliath . . . in a best-of-seven series . . . where the giant has a much bigger advantage than in the Bible, where it was single elimination.

Now, after two competitive games, with the series headed back to Philadelphia, no one's talking about Bible stories or sweeps or unbeaten postseasons or greatest teams in history.

In the Lakers' first two series, the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings looked scared, both unraveling on their home floor. The San Antonio Spurs didn't look too good, either, by the end of their series, but by then, the Lakers were on an incredible roll, exemplified by Derek Fisher making 15 of 20 three-point shots.

The 76ers, who are harder to impress, are the first to stand up to them.

"Those guys, everything's been easy for them," Iverson said of the Lakers before Game 2.

"I don't know if guys that they were playing against were scared of them. I don't know. But they felt like they could just step on the court with anybody and we put them in a war, so now they feel like they've got to come with their A-plus game every night. If not, we're going to have a chance to win.

"And if they do come with their A-plus game, we still have a chance to win."

That wasn't the Lakers' A-plus game Friday night, or anything close to it.

Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are fighting for every point they get and Shaq is struggling from the free-throw line again, 14 for 32 in this series.

The floor is no longer open and the defense isn't spread out and at their mercy. The Laker role players are no longer free and easy and knocking down three-pointers.

Now the superstars are carrying most of the load (try 59 of the Lakers' 98 points Friday) and the Lakers aren't dominating any more.

After much effort, and coming from nine points down in the second quarter, the Lakers opened up a lead in the third quarter, then seemed to put the 76ers away, going up, 86-73, with 7:10 to play. Then the 76ers started pressing and the Lakers started wilting.

"I think we scared them a little bit," 76er Coach Larry Brown said. "I had my summer league team out there [when they cut into the Laker lead]. If some of those summer league kids would get any respect [read: foul calls], we would have been able to celebrate a little bit. . . .

"I just really, to be honest, want to leave here, having a feeling in that locker room that, you know, this is just not a big mismatch, that we have a chance."

After Game 1, when Iverson scored 48 points, the Lakers sniffed that the 76ers couldn't play any better.

Sure enough, Iverson made 10 of 29 shots Friday night and scored a mere 23, with the Lakers often double-teaming him, no matter how far he was from the hoop.

"I'm not going to come out in the Finals and put up 40 points every night," said Iverson. "Don't you think they know I'm going to try to score?

"You know, I don't get one [defender]. Shaq is the biggest person in the league and it would be crazy to play him one-on-one. But I'm one of the smallest in the league and I don't get played one-on-one.

"Look at the game a little more, try to pay attention to that aspect of the game and you'll see what's going on out there on the floor. This is a team game. They're not going to let me kill them. After awhile, a light switch comes on."

It was Brown, of course, who came up with the David-Goliath metaphor for this series.

"Didn't David win?" asked Brown late Friday night.

He did in the Bible. In the NBA Finals, it looks like it may not be decided for awhile.

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