This article was originally published in the Inquirer on April 30, 2001.
In upending the Indiana Pacers in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series Saturday, the 76ers displayed the character that has been their hallmark all season. Afterward, they showed their diplomacy, matter-of-factly saying all the right things.
George Lynch talked about the team's finishing its business in Game 4 Wednesday night at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Eric Snow spoke of the Sixers' determination and focus. Dikembe Mutombo put it simply and with candor, calling the Sixers "a better team. "
Now, what the Sixers really need to do is be true to their words.
They have to deflate Jalen Rose. They have to pull the plug on Reggie Miller the first chance they get.
What the Sixers don't need to do is give Indiana any reason to believe they have assumed that this series is over because they have regained home-court advantage, and swagger around town as if they have accomplished something.
They need that killer instinct, something they haven't always exhibited this season.
"We've got an opportunity to finish them off," Lynch said. "I think it will be very important for us to [return to Indiana] and put it to them. "We've got to let them know they shouldn't be playing with us in this series. We can't give them any life. "
Some explanations sound better than others, but it all means the same thing.
The Sixers may be up by two games to one in this best-of-five playoff series, but they could have reached the semifinal round by now. They had been up by 18 points in the first half of Game 1 and by 16 in the second half of Game 3.
They allowed Indiana's Travis Best to record 16 points and 10 assists and Miller to travel from one end of the court to another before drilling a three-pointer with 2.9 seconds remaining to steal Game 1.
Allen Iverson erupted for 45 points in Game 2, and Aaron McKie helped him out in a reserve role in Game 3 with 22 points, coming within a point of outscoring the Pacers' entire bench for the third consecutive game.
But it took just that for the Sixers to escape defeat in Game 3 of this first-round series, which goes to the heart of their problems.
All season, the Sixers have had leads and then lost them, with Iverson and McKie repeatedly coming to the rescue while their teammates became spectators. One game that immediately comes to mind was played Dec. 30 in Sacramento, where the Sixers nearly allowed the Kings to erase a huge deficit in the fourth quarter with a barrage of three-point shots by Predrap Stojakovic.
In coaching the Sixers on Saturday, Larry Brown was every bit the genius he had been portrayed as being in the days leading up to Game 3.
The team studied the Pacers, getting Isiah Thomas' coaching schemes down to a science. Every angle. Every intent. Who would shoot which shot? Where? And when?
Someone joked that it was like a science-fiction film, projecting the future. So why did the Sixers look like deer caught in the headlights after entering the fourth quarter with a 74-60 lead on Saturday?
Austin Croshere, who has been a shell of himself since signing for $50 million last summer, managed to score eight straight points for Indiana. Miller, predictably, got off a couple of threes. And regardless of what many will interpret as sour grapes on the part of Indiana, Thomas had a point after the game.
The Pacers' first-year coach had every reason to question how Iverson could play 47 minutes of aggressive basketball at both ends of the floor and not get called for a foul. He had every reason to inquire about the Sixers' beating the Pacers without scoring a field goal in the game's last 4 minutes, 49 seconds by collecting its last 10 points at the free-throw line.
The Sixers should be wondering about those things themselves, and make sure they don't put themselves in a similar position Wednesday night.
If they aren't careful, the series will come down to Miller and another 48 minutes: a hot jump-shooting artist away from a premature postseason exit.
"We feel that we're a better team than they are, and we just want to win this series," Mutombo said.