Lakers' Hearts Keeping the Beat

The gut has been checked, and it is there, as taut as Robert Horry's smile while pumping his arms toward 20,000 stunned Philadelphians.

The heart has been examined, and it beats, as loudly as Allen Iverson's curses and Dikembe Mutombo's flops.

In a rollicking South Philly brawl Sunday, the Lakers' glitz was stolen and their glamour stripped.

Revealing insides strongly resembling those of a champion.

For nearly three hours in Game 3 of the NBA Finals the Lakers were chased by the Philadelphia 76ers, harassed by the referees, left short-handed and outmanned and sweating.

And they won anyway, won angrily and decisively, and as bad as they looked, you shudda seen the other guys.

The final score was 96-91, the Lakers taking a two-games-to-one lead over the 76ers, recapturing home-court advantage and shutting some fairly big fat mouths.

You know, those belonging to us skeptics who wondered if the scrappy hosts didn't have more of that thing that pumps. Even the 76ers talked about their heart so much recently you would have thought it was not a muscle, but a statistic.

Without Shaquille O'Neal or Derek Fisher down the stretch, the Lakers cut out that heart, then crowed over it.

"I don't care what your problem is, how big your heart is, we just want to come and beat you no matter how competitive you are," Kobe Bryant said. "You know, I don't care who it is. I don't give a damn."

Rick Fox smiled and added, "If heart is something you're always talking about, then maybe it's something that is new. We've had it."

And then this from Tyronn Lue: "We have heart too. We just don't go out and boast and brag about how much heart we've got, we just go out and play. And you've seen our heart tonight."

Saw heart, and ate crow. With 2:21 to play, O'Neal and Fisher had both fouled out and the Lakers led by only two points and this observer thought the Lakers were done.

How could they hold off a smaller, quicker pursuer in a cluttered and deafening forest? Maybe during last year's playoffs when they had done it again and again, but this year? When everything had come so easy? When their makeup was still so uncertain?

How?

"Because we've been here before, and we've done this before, that's how," Fox said. "People forget that."

The memories began returning when, the Lakers' lead cut to one, Fox fearlessly drove on Dikembe Mutombo and went to the foul line and increased it to two.

Then Fox grabbed a loose ball and Bryant turned it into a running swish over two 76ers to increase the margin to four.

Then, after Kevin Ollie's three-point play closed the gap to one, Horry did what he does seemingly every June.

He rubbed his eyes, realized in a panic that he had just slept through most of the season, then climbed out of a bed to win a playoff game.

If his three-point basket didn't end it, then his four free throws ended it, or maybe it was his big rebound with a three-point lead that ended it.

"Robert does this all the time," Bryant said, laughing in amazement. "He does. He's sneaky about it."

The action ended fittingly, not on the court, but in the stands directly behind one basket, where six fans engaged in a vicious punching, kicking brawl in front of yawning security guards.

One man was knocked out, several others were bloodied, but the larger story appeared when they picked everyone off the floor and examined their souvenir jerseys.

It was 76er fans fighting 76er fans.

"Everyone was going crazy when the game began . . . but it was a different kind of place when we left," said Lue.

And a different series.

The Lakers are now not just ripping the 76ers for bragging about heart, but for crying about injuries.

"We're just as banged up, but we don't talk about it," Fox said.

And O'Neal is ripping Mutombo for faking some of the falls that led to O'Neal's second disqualification of the playoffs.

Sometimes, O'Neal indeed plowed him over. But other times, Mutombo did look like a weeping, faking soccer player, including his fall on the sixth foul.

"I don't think the best defensive player in the game would be flopping like he did," O'Neal said.

Countered Mutombo: "For him, coming up and trying to accuse me of something, it's so ridiculous."

Stay tuned. The Lakers have already played three games as good as any of their Finals games last year. It should only get better.

In a tunnel behind the court late Sunday, Laker owner Jerry Buss was fairly skipping.

"Was that a great game or what?" he asked.

Maybe not for everyone. The 76ers will moan about how, down the stretch, Iverson missed a layup and Ollie missed a pass and even the full power of the First Union scoreboard couldn't help them.

It kept the roaring crowd on its feet with clips from "Rocky," "Gladiator" and "Braveheart."

It then whipped into an angry frenzy by showing a clip of former President Clinton sitting in a luxury box.

In one end zone, Ann Iverson danced around with a sign featuring Iverson's No. 3 and reading, "That's My Boy."

It got so crazy, Will Smith came out of the stands, stood behind a giant slingshot and began firing T-shirts to the fans.

Um, which one is the Hollywood team again?

"Yeah, it got away," Iverson said. "That's right. Couldn't say it no better. We had our chances, it got away."

For the Lakers, it showed up, sneering and splendid.

"The 76ers have heart, but so what?" asked Brian Shaw. "You can have heart and lose. We have heart and we have injuries and we just play through it."

From October to now, they've played through it. Two more victories, and what a journey it will have been.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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