Finishing Touch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While a town acquainted itself with this Robert Horry guy, the forward with the balky gait who flung a three-pointer straight into the heart it keeps talking about having, Kobe Bryant waved his hand.

"I don't know why you're surprised," he said, laughing. "Robert does this all the time. He does. He's sneaky about it. . . . [But] that's Robert for you."

The Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 96-91, on Sunday night at First Union Center, where the NBA Finals changed course again. The Lakers lead the best-of-seven series, two games to one, in part because Horry scored the Lakers' final seven points, all of them in the last 47.1 seconds, all of them with Shaquille O'Neal on the bench, having fouled out.

Turned out, it wasn't all about the 76ers, about their desire and their second-tier players and their fearlessness. The Lakers are 13-1 in the postseason, following their lone defeat with two difficult victories.

"We have heart too," Laker guard Tyronn Lue said. "We just don't go out and boast and brag about it."

In a place panting over a home team that has worn its perceptions of disrespect to the bone, the Lakers retook command of the Finals the moment Horry stepped into the place left by O'Neal.

Later, Philadelphia Coach Larry Brown marveled at how he's able to do this with his NBA mutts and novices, and O'Neal put Dikembe Mutombo on his list of centers unwilling or unable to play him "like a man," and Allen Iverson noted with some pride that the 76ers hadn't yet been blown out.

But first Horry had to do his thing, which typically comes with an easy lope and half-shut eyes, but not this time. This time, he stood in the left corner, diagonally across the floor from O'Neal, watched the ball swing along the perimeter, Bryant to Brian Shaw to him. He received the pass with the Lakers ahead by only one point, flipped the ball away, and pumped his fists when the Lakers were ahead by four, 92-88, with just more than 47 seconds remaining.

"You go out there and you just play," Horry said. "You've got to be fearless. You go out there and do what you need to do."

Iverson, who scored 35 points on 30 shots, bared his teeth and punched at air. A rubber ball arced from the stands and bounced into the Laker huddle. The crowd was silent.

"That's a rhythm shot for me, something we practice all the time," Horry said. "I said, 'Hey, I got my feet set, I'm shooting this.' They got a small lineup. I know other guys can go to the boards, get the rebound. I said, 'Hey, release it. If it's good, it's good. If not, get back on [defense].' "

It swished. And while the 76ers drew on their next possession to pull to 92-91, Horry made two free throws with 21.3 seconds remaining for a 94-91 lead. Then he rebounded Iverson's miss with 9.5 seconds remaining, then made two more free throws.

So the Lakers retook home-court advantage and, if there is nothing else for them here, their season cannot die in Philadelphia. To take the title away from the Lakers, the 76ers will have to win at least one more in Los Angeles.

"There are a lot of people outside of our circle that felt like we don't know what it means to be in close games," Laker guard Derek Fisher said.

A player with a reputation for big-game flourishes, but whose careless offensive foul near the end of Game 1 set off the 76ers' winning rally, Horry scored 12 points in the fourth quarter. In 24 minutes, he scored 15 points and took four rebounds and blocked two shots. He also was assigned to Mutombo down the stretch.

"I guess you'd have to say that Robert Horry stepped into a massive role again, like he does," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. "That's the reason he plays fourth quarters for us, is his ability to defend and also make key shots. And he was big tonight."

Bryant scored 32 points, 20 in the first half, and made a critical 10-foot jumper with 1:20 remaining to push the Laker lead to 89-85. O'Neal scored 30 points and had 12 rebounds, and played four minutes in the fourth quarter with five fouls.

O'Neal fouled out with 2:21 remaining, 26 seconds after Fisher, the starting point guard and key Iverson defender, did the same. Without O'Neal, and with First Union Center trembling beneath the racket, the Lakers outscored the 76ers, 10-6.

"We had a chance to win," Iverson said. "We were right there."

First Union Center was what most expected--loud and raw, filled with handmade signs and heart-felt vitriol.

Before the game, they booed. But Bryant was special. They don't like Bryant here, where he's viewed as a traitor, or too soft to play for the 76ers, or something dastardly. They chanted unkind things.

Bryant grinned.

"Loud place, huh?" he said to no one after one early timeout.

He scored most of his 20 first-half points on jumpers. He made eight of his first nine attempts in the second quarter. On a 15-3 run that gave the Lakers a 40-30 lead, Bryant scored on five consecutive possessions, all on jump shots of at least 15 feet.

The third quarter turned for Bryant, who could not hold his touch. He missed eight of 10 attempts and the Lakers scored only 18 points, and O'Neal appeared to fall out of an early rhythm.

O'Neal carried the early Laker offense, making four of his first five field-goal attempts, and his first four free throws. Overall, he made eight of nine free throws.

After some of them, he pointed seven rows into the stands, where his step-father, Philip Harrison, a.k.a. Sarge, stood and applauded him. Horace Grant saluted Sarge before the game, and Sarge smiled.

O'Neal scored 14 points in the first quarter, the last two after the 24-second clock expired on the Lakers' final possession. Just as strangely, Matt Geiger concluded the quarter with a 21-foot fall-away from the right corner that swished, tying the score, 25-25. Iverson made a 21-foot jumper to start the second quarter, giving the 76ers a 27-25 lead. It was their last.

For expanded coverage of the NBA Finals, including live updates, photo galleries and postgame interviews, visit the Times' Web site: latimes.com/nbaplayoffs.

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IN THE CLUTCH

Robert Horry made a series of key plays in the final moments for the Lakers. A breakdown of the crucial stretch:

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TIME PLAY 2:21 Shaquille O'Neal fouls out with Lakers leading, 86-82 47.2 Horry makes a 24-foot three-point shot to give Lakers 92-86 lead. 21.3 After Iverson makes three free throws, Horry makes two to give Lakers a 94-91 lead. 9.1 Horry grabs rebound and is fouled after Iverson misses short jumper. 9.1 Horry makes both free throws to give Lakers a 96-91 lead.

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