76ers Begin to Realize That End May Be Near

Let's just say if the Philadelphia 76ers do have one more miracle left in them, it's going to have to be a really big one.

The 76er dream faded to very dark gray Wednesday night as form finally arrived in the NBA Finals, looking a lot like Shaquille O'Neal in a bad mood. The Lakers led the 76ers by as many as 22 points, beat them by 14 and now lead the series, 3-1, leaving the home team one game from being able to call it a season and check into a hospital, en masse.

"I wish," said 76er Coach Larry Brown, grinning as if the pressure was off, "it was like the NCAAs. We'd be having a parade."

The NCAAs, of course, are single elimination, but this is a best-of-seven series, so after winning Game 1, the 76ers had to come back and face the giant again. And every game that goes by, it seems, the giant gets bigger, not to mention more upset.

"Whole lotta Shaquille O'Neal," said Allen Iverson, also cheerful enough despite the circumstances. "That's all it was, whole lotta Shaquille O'Neal.

"Guy that big, sittin' in the middle of the lane, what can you do? Never moves out of position. Not one illegal defense call the whole series. But he's the most dominant on both ends of the court. He's just too big, too strong and when he's allowed to do whatever he wants to on the court, nobody can stop him.

"Never seen nothing this dominant. When you let him get away with stuff, he's like Wilt Chamberlain out there. Just too big and strong. . . .

"I mean, when I'm not playing against Shaquille O'Neal, I'm watching Shaquille O'Neal play. I mean, after this is over, you know we'll go back to just being cool with each other again.

"But right now, we're in a war. I mean, I don't get frustrated about it because I know what he can do on the court and I feel like if I get frustrated about what he's doing on the court, then I'll be frustrated every second of the game. Straight up."

After the game, it was hard to remember but before it, this was still a series.

Game 4 was the 76ers' last chance to keep the Finals competitive and they came in rested, at least. The team that had been playing every other day since Game 5 of its series against the Toronto Raptors had two days off in the same town for the first time since May 16.

Aaron McKie, "just physically whipped," according to Brown, had his blood count checked and received fluids intravenously.

But the 76ers had been here before in the playoffs, hadn't they?

Didn't Iverson always come up big, averaging 37 points with eight assists in games following 76er losses?

Fairy tales may come true but not all the time, like Wednesday night when O'Neal, who'd been vowing vengeance on Dikembe Mutombo since fouling out of Game 3, began to methodically deconstruct the 76er center.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Iverson began to miss.

Anything the 76ers do is predicated on holding their opponent down because, as Brown noted before the game, "We're a painful team, offensively." They don't get many easy shots and they don't have many options.

But Iverson's outside shot comes and goes and Wednesday, it went. Of the 12 shots he took from beyond 10 feet in the first three quarters, he missed 11, and by then the Lakers were 18 points ahead.

Of course the 76ers came back. The 76ers always come back. This time, they got as close as 77-70, but that was as good as it got for them.

For weeks, this wasn't a team but a belief system and Iverson is still clinging to what little is left.

"I mean, we've got to feel that way," he said. "If we don't feel that way, there's no need even coming out of the locker room Friday. I don't want to come out and get embarrassed if we don't think we can win 'cause that's all that's gonna happen with a team like that, you know?

"If we don't come out and, you know, give it our all, they'll be celebrating on our floor, you know? And we'll be talking about, you know, what a great journey we had what a great rise it was. . . .

"I'm looking forward to getting married this summer but I can wait for it to come, definitely."

McKie looked drained, missing eight of his nine shots. George Lynch, sidelined for the last month because of a broken toe, limped back out there but could only go eight minutes.

Brown said he was proud of them again. "After watching us get down by 20 or so and have the pride to try to come back against a terrific team that was playing great--it doesn't get much better than that."

But now the Lakers are one victory away from putting them out of their misery or pride. Straight up.

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