Unlike L.A.'s Bench, the 76ers Aren't Collecting Splinters

The Lakers have the edge over the Philadelphia 76ers in the superstar category, two to one.

But one of the reasons the NBA Finals are even after two games is the play of the 76ers' substitutes--a group that includes the little-knowns and unknowns--have managed to stand on each others' shoulders and look the Laker giants eye-to-eye.

Opposing teams' superstars tend to cancel each other out and often it's the supporting casts that make a difference. That's why John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Vernon Maxwell can each lay claim to as many NBA Finals-clinching shots as Michael Jordan.

No individual has emerged as a hero for the 76ers, but collectively the Philadelphia subs (I guess around here you'd call them hoagies) have been as surprising as the results of the first two games.

Philadelphia Coach Larry Brown is getting productive minutes from what he calls "my summer league team." Every player he sends into the game seems to respond well. He survives stretches with Todd MacCulloch against Shaquille O'Neal. He sends in Raja Bell, who had been with the team for exactly two months, during overtime and it works.

Although Allen Iverson took 41 shots in Game 1, the 76ers still had three other players reach double figures in scoring.

In Game 2 the Philadelphia reserves equaled Kobe Bryant's scoring output and outscored their Laker counterparts, 31-19.

Of course, Philadelphia's program is dependent on Iverson. Not only his points, but his belief. Even when Iverson isn't passing the ball, he should get an assist when some of his teammates score.

"Our best players believe in our bench, in our subs, which is critical to any coach putting a kid in the game," Brown said. "There's a lot of players in this league that I don't know if they give their teammates enough confidence, but when your best players believe in the [Kevin] Ollies and the Bells, it helps them."

At the start of the second quarter in Game 2, Brown had MacCulloch, Matt Geiger, Bell and Eric Snow on the court along with Iverson.

Over the next 5 1/2 minutes that group--with Ollie replacing Snow and Aaron McKie subbing for Bell along the way--turned a one-point deficit into a seven-point lead.

Dikembe Mutombo had two personal fouls. When MacCulloch or Geiger enter the game, Shaquille O'Neal actually becomes less of a scoring threat because the 76ers are forced to double-team the Laker center. (Shaq remained effective on Friday, however, because he passed well out of the double-teams and his teammates made their shots.)

MacCulloch ran the court and scored two transition layups during the 76ers' spurt. He finished with 13 points, although he was a victim on three of O'Neal's eight blocked shots.

"I just tried to be aggressive, tried not to be intimidated," MacCulloch said. "O'Neal is going to get some of my shots--hopefully not all of them. My game has always been to try and score. He's definitely getting in the way, but I'm going to try and just keep gong at him."

MacCulloch is a familiar face to Pacific 10 Conference fans from his days at Washington.

Geiger has been around the league for nine years, and with his shaved head and aggressive play, reminds you of a wrestler like Goldberg or Stone Cold Steve Austin.

But Laker fans have to be scratching their heads, wondering who is this Raja Bell?

"I don't know what to tell them," Bell said. "People who don't know me and didn't care about me then, I'm not worried about them. I'm more worried about the people who have been supporting me from Day One."

Bell split his college years between Boston University and Florida International. He spent last season with the Yakima Sun Kings. He didn't join the 76ers until he signed a 10-day contract on April 6. He signed a multiyear contract when it expired.

Yet he contributed to Philadelphia's defensive pressure that led to Bryant's struggles in Game 1. And when he pivoted around in the lane, saw open space and threw up a scoop shot that dropped in during the Game 1 overtime, it equaled the field-goal output of O'Neal during the extra session.

"I just try to work hard in practice and watch the film. When I get in, everybody has shown confidence in me and I don't want to let anybody down when I get out there, so I'm trying to give it 110, 115%."

Said Brown: "I never want to put a kid in a situation where I think he can fail, and I hope they understand that. So when I play them, they know I believe in them and I'm hopeful they're prepared enough to go out and perform.

"I had no idea, though, that he could perform on this level playing as sparingly as he played. I've seen some great players have a hard time, stop breathing, let alone playing, on this stage against Kobe Bryant."

Bench players tend to fare better at home than on the road, so now that the series has shifted to the First Union Center for the next three games, their confidence should only grow.

The difference between superstars and the guys who spend most of the games with their warmups on is you can count on the same output from the big boys every game.

Geiger scored 10 points in the opener, only four in the second. But MacCulloch went from zero to 13.

You could call it their shining moment, but that has been worked to death and the whole thing is starting to get corny.

The 76ers don't have a cute nickname like Sacramento's "Bench Mob." They just have strength in numbers.


J.A. Adande can be reached at ja.adande@latimes.com.

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