This article was originally published in the Daily News on June 6, 2001.
Imagine this: A team that won 56 games during the regular season, that earned the No. 1 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, that includes the NBA's Most Valuable Player, the leading scorer, the Defensive Player of the Year, the leading rebounder, the Sixth Man Award winner and the Coach of the Year is suddenly the ultimate underdog.
These are the 76ers of Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo, Aaron McKie and Larry Brown. They believe they can win the championship. They have no choice. Just about everyone else who believes they can win are - no disrespect intended - fans.
The ultimate underdog?
"Definitely,'' Iverson said, relishing the moment. "Everything's against you. Like coach said, it's David and Goliath. Everybody's going to pick the Lakers. Go with the sure shot; go with what everybody else is going with. Everybody's picking us to get swept.
"We're grown men, with a lot of heart. We're professionals; we've got guys with a lot of talent. We just love people saying we don't have a shot. That makes me want to play so much more. It makes me want to see those people after it's all over. ''
Still, Iverson admits he's never been "in this predicament'' before; he has never been to the Finals.
The Lakers are the defending champions. Riding an incredible wave of 11 postseason victories in succession, they are focused on becoming the first NBA team to go undefeated in the playoffs. Their overall winning streak has stretched to 19, including the last eight games of the regular season. Their last loss was April 1.
"I've never seen anything like this, never had to play a team that's been off for 10 days,'' Iverson said. "I don't know, I'm just looking forward to the opponent. We'll show up. Regardless of how long they've been off, we'll be in LA. We'll be there. ''
The Lakers won the same 56 games, split their two games with the Sixers and earned the homecourt advantage in the 2-3-2 format by virtue of a better record vs. the East than the Sixers had vs. the West. But with eight games remaining in the season, the Lakers locked in; they swept the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sacramento Kings and the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs. They cared not a whit for the Blazers' talent pool, for the Kings' scoring prowess, for the Spurs' league-best record or the presence of Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
Their homecourt, the Staples Center, isn't just an arena anymore; it's a fortress.
"Looking from the outside, it's the little guys [Iverson is barely 6 feet] against the big guys [Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal is 7-1],'' Brown said. "They're going to look at Shaq, they're going to look at Allen; obviously, they're the two leaders. [But] the way Allen plays, the way Allen competes, he's pretty special. ''
The ultimate underdog?
"It's going to take more than Allen, and he'd be the first to admit it,'' Brown said. "Everybody on the team has to step up and play better than they know how. ''
Last week, Lakers coach Phil Jackson lobbed the first mind-game grenade when he said: "Now we have our [MVP] in the league, who carries the ball maybe three or four times on every play, [who is] capable of running at you with the basketball and then putting it down, which makes it almost impossible to cover that little rascal. And, as a result, the league had adapted. . .the referees allow you to make moves and change. ''
Brown is more subtle, but he tried to carefully lift any undue pressure from the shoulders of Mutombo, his 7-2 center, and in the process leave his own message. Mutombo arrived Feb. 22 in a controversial trade in which the Sixers sent Theo Ratliff and Toni Kukoc to the Atlanta Hawks. The Sixers were 41-14 at the time, Ratliff had just undergone surgery on his right wrist and Brown and Kukoc had become oil and water.
"Dikembe is not here to play against Shaquille,'' Brown insisted. "We never even projected that. We got him because he made our team better; under the circumstances, we really needed him.
"It's important to know how the game is refereed. When I had Rik Smits [with the Indiana Pacers] against Shaq, he'd foul out in warmups. I just know we wouldn't be in this position without Dikembe. As great as Allen is playing, as much as Allen means to our team, Dikembe solidifies us on defense and on the boards. I don't think there's any way we would have made it through any of the three series [against the Pacers, the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks] without him. ''
The previous opponents attempted to lure Mutombo away from the basket, creating passing and driving lanes; the Sixers will try to do that with O'Neal, but it might be like trying to move a mountain.
Iverson will worry about that daunting task when the ball goes up. Not before.
"To finally get here, to be able to say to people who don't matter [that] they don't matter, the only thing that matters is the guys I play with and my coaching staff and our fans - the true Philly fans, not the people who come up to you when everything is going great,'' Iverson said.
"My teammates deserve this. . .It feels better to know the people who hate us, they're hurtin' right now, hurtin' bad inside. That makes me feel good. As far as basketball, this is the hardest thing I've ever tried to accomplish, to get here.
"It took putting together a team. Guys people said couldn't hit open shots. . .these are the same guys who couldn't hit open shots, who couldn't rebound, who couldn't defend, who couldn't score. The same guys. Right here. A team. ''
If the Sixers are indeed the ultimate underdog, who exactly are the Lakers?
"They're a great team, a great-coached team, with so many pieces to the puzzle that fit so perfectly,'' Iverson said. "They have two great stars, two Hall of Fame players.
"But we have that same type of stuff, the same type of people on our squad. We might not have all the physical talent, but we have the heart.
"And I'd rather get on the court with somebody with heart than a lot of talent. ''
What Iverson says in long, expressive answers, McKie says more succinctly.
"If we don't believe in ourselves, nobody else will,'' McKie said.
"We're trying to win the series. Not compete, or win a game and pack it in for the summer.''