Now We Can Get Swept Up in Series

Something unexpectedly wonderful has dropped into our laps. This NBA championship series is going to be fun. It already has offered us an overtime game. It is showing us the meaning of competition, the joy of watching athletes explore their boundaries, expand their limits.

The Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 98-89, Friday night at Staples Center. Thank goodness, there will be no Philadelphia sweep.

Let's allow this best-of-seven story to have seven chapters, to be played as long as possible.

The Lakers reacted to their stunning Game 1 loss to the 76ers on Wednesday as champions should. They played defense with the enthusiasm of rookies. Which is how Philadelphia plays defense. The Lakers understand now what makes the 76ers go.

Thank Shaquille O'Neal not only for his 28 points, but for his eight blocks and nine assists. It is not easy keeping those 320 pounds moving so much and so effectively.

And thank Kobe Bryant for not trying too hard to make up for Wednesday night's lousy 15 points. Bryant didn't do anything silly. He was confident enough to play his own game.

Derek Fisher, thank him too. Fisher would not leave Allen Iverson alone. Fisher has the pride of a great athlete and not the sulk of a selfish one. He watched and learned Wednesday.

But, Laker fans, don't get too cocky.

We have learned that it is not only the individual brilliance of Iverson that has brought Philadelphia this far.

All of the other 76ers have limitations. Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, Dikembe Mutombo, Eric Snow, Jumaine Jones, Matt Geiger and Todd MacCulloch all know the truth. They are not stars. They must play hard and smart every moment of every game, and by doing so they usually end up in the right place at the right time.

Those collective limitations, then, have made the 76ers something we don't see enough of any more. A team.

Admit it, Laker fans.

You were a little worried when MacCulloch, a slow-moving backup center, made back-to-back layups for Philadelphia, including one in transition. You were a bit nervous when the 76ers were ahead by seven in the second quarter and down by only two at halftime.

Only two, and Iverson had scored 11 points--which is often a bad quarter for him--while O'Neal had 17 and Bryant 16.

Before the game, Laker Coach Phil Jackson had said the second games of these seven-game affairs is always telling. He said you learn a lot about teams after both have been able to make adjustments.

More than in those first 11 playoff wins, what we saw Friday night was how good the Lakers are. They became as tough as the 76ers, as relentless, as determined, as positively motivated to get to each loose ball, to contest every rebound, to make all of the extra passes. They were smart enough to realize the 76ers aren't going to concede.

While the Lakers were coasting through a month of playoff games, the 76ers were competing every night for every point. So they weren't going to stop now. The Lakers competed for every point Friday.

And for the rest of us, we are in for a treat.

It's too bad NBC seems to have assumed the Lakers would sweep. The network must have, or it wouldn't have scheduled piped-in concerts and snippets of a silly game show at halftime instead of letting its experts revel in the excitement of the unexpected.

It is effort that will matter for both teams as long as this series lasts.

Admit it, Laker fans. You were really nervous when Mutombo, on an Iverson pass, made a layup with 2:24 left to make the score 89-86, Lakers. Fisher's three-pointer 17 seconds later did not totally convince you the Lakers would win, did it?

Isn't competition great? Isn't this much better than that 15-0 playoff dream? Isn't a little sweat on the brow, a butterfly in the gut, just the best?

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Diane Pucin can be reached at

diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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