If Kobe Bryant is the villain here, someone should have told the bride-to-be, the young woman in white whose elevator door opened on the ground floor of a downtown hotel to find Bryant standing there, floppy hat and all.
“Oh, hey,” she cried and blushed and stuck out her hand.
Bryant, who has recent experience in wedding days, smiled through the crust of his cross-country flight and said, “Hey, congratulations,” very friendly. He shook her hand, which she put shyly to her mouth, and then danced off with her bridesmaids atwitter.
The Lakers arrived early Saturday evening, looking every bit the team that went 48 hard minutes the night before, awoke early and jetted six hours. They did not practice, Phil Jackson easing off some in the midst of a series that has been physical enough to be knock-down, if not yet long enough to be drag-out.
“Hey,” Jackson said on his way into the lobby. “You here for the wedding?”
The Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers, tied after two games of the NBA Finals, play Game 3 today at First Union Center, where the 76ers are 7-3 in the postseason.
The reception for Bryant and the Lakers could only come down from Saturday, when a couple of dozen Laker fans cheered the arrival of their bus and their brisk walk into the hotel. After all, the enduring moment of Game 2, a 98-89 Laker victory, came in the final seconds, when Bryant and 76er guard Allen Iverson stood near midcourt and let each other know that this was only the beginning.
There are two perceptions that have arisen since Wednesday, when the series began with an overtime victory for the 76ers and a sense there were parts of the Philadelphia game the Lakers might not be able to handle.
One, a cool and Zen-ful earnestness might not always work against the 76ers, who follow Iverson’s brash and reckless lead, pushing games into desperate, grimy corners. The Lakers thrived for more than two months on flow and rhythm, and now find they’ll need elbows and glares too, particularly here on South Broad Street. Two, the 76ers have become the team with heart, overachievers who don’t quit and don’t cry about injuries and don’t give a darn who likes them and who doesn’t. As a result, of course, everybody does, because America loves a 160-pound guy who won’t give in, and even those who don’t love him can’t take their eyes off him.
“We have to play competitive basketball, do what it takes to win,” Bryant said. “If it gets ugly, it gets ugly. We just want to win.”
It is not that the Lakers have appeared intimidated. There isn’t a player in the league who would stand up to Shaquille O’Neal, and he has averaged 36 points and 20 rebounds in two games. He blocked eight shots in Game 2, so now he’s outplaying Dikembe Mutombo, the defensive player of the year, on both ends.
But, the 76ers have a knack for taking a perfectly civilized game outdoors, to the blacktop of Philly, imposing their ragged, hell-bent game on the neatness of the triangle and the Laker desire for straight-up defense. At the end of Game 2, even in defeat, Iverson stood and smiled and applauded.
“It’s the effort we gave,” Iverson said Friday night. “Not throwing in the towel. Knowing that, you know, a team that’s supposed to dominate us, a team that’s supposed to have swept us almost didn’t get out of here with a win, up 12 points with a little bit of time on the clock. They said we played 1,000% last game. I wonder what percentage we played this game.”
The Lakers don’t begrudge them that, their reputation for playing over their heads, for getting to the Finals on one leg and a dream. The 76ers decided a long time ago that nobody believes in them, and they’re not going to let contrary evidence ruin a perfectly good motivation tool.
“That’s fine with me,” Bryant said. “They play with a lot of heart. They’re competitive. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
In what will be a nasty environment, particularly for Bryant, the Lakers could lean on this underdog business themselves. They haven’t lost a road game in the playoffs, and haven’t lost a road game overall since March 26 in Phoenix. They won by an average of 12.4 points in five road playoff games.
“Now we just need to go to their place and get one or two games,” O’Neal said. “I think we can do that. We play well on the road. We’re real focused on the road. If we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be fine.”
Undoubtedly, First Union will be like the arenas of Portland and Sacramento and San Antonio, only without the occasional cowbells.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Bryant said. “From the looks of it on television, that place is incredibly loud. It seems like Philly just feeds off of it, like there’s an amazing amount of energy there in that building. We just have to be prepared for it. We just have to block it out, go down there, take it one possession at a time and see what we can come up with.”
GAME 3 / TODAY AT PHILADELPHIA, 4:30 P.M. PDT, CHANNEL 4
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
This is the fourth meeting in the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers. The previous three had plenty of memorable moments:
* 1980, Lakers defeat 76ers, 4-2--Showtime was officially born as rookie Magic Johnson scored 42 points and had 15 rebounds and the Lakers won the decisive game in Philadelphia, 123-107. What made Johnson’s performance all the more magical was it came with league most valuable player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back in Los Angeles with an ankle injury.
* 1982, Lakers defeat 76ers, 4-2--When the 76ers won the Eastern Conference championship in Boston, the chant of “Beat L.A.” was born. The problem for the 76ers was they couldn’t beat L.A. in L.A. After the teams split two games in Philadelphia, the Lakers won Games 3, 4 and 6 at the Forum. Magic Johnson was again named the series MVP after the 114-104 clincher.
* 1983, 76ers defeat Lakers, 4-0--Julius Erving’s long quest for a championship ring came to a joyous end as Philadelphia nearly swept through the playoffs, going 12-1. The difference from the 1980 and ’82 Finals was the addition of Moses Malone in the middle for the 76ers. Philadelphia won the title in Los Angeles, 115-108.
Mark Heisler: A close series between the Lakers and 76ers is exactly what the NBA, not to mention NBC, desperately needs. D11
Jim Murray: A columnist taking shots at Philadelphia? Check out what the late Pulitzer Prize winner had to say in 1978. D11
J.A. Adande: The 76ers have gotten a big lift from their reserves, who haven’t been afraid to take on the Lakers’ superstars. D15
Transition Game: After the Lakers made the necessary adjustments in Game 2, it’s up to 76er Coach Larry Brown to react. D15
Laker Report: Returning home to Philadelphia for the next three games of the Finals is no big deal for Kobe Bryant. D14
76er Report: Philadelphia’s players are counting on an emotional boost from the raucous crowd at the First Union Center. D14