Despite Game 2 loss, Sixers have sent a message

This article was originally published in the Daily News on June 9, 2001.

If anything, this simply strengthens the 76ers' belief in one another.

They might lose, but they do not give in. They lost, 98-89, to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2 of the NBA Finals last night, but they left for Philadelphia on their charter flight knowing they had beaten the odds.

They took one of the two games in the Staples Center, and very nearly took the Lakers' hearts. They got pounded 52-34 in the paint, they got singed 25-9 on the fastbreak, they very nearly gave up a quadruple-double to Shaquille O'Neal, but they stayed on their feet to the end, the classic fighters who refused to go down.

They were "Rocky," basketball style, coming perhaps within one more run or a handful of converted free throws of becoming the first team to win the first two games of the best-of-seven Finals on the road since Houston defeated Orlando in 1995.

What's a night without another Sixers injury? This time, center Dikembe Mutombo suffered a cut on his tongue, declined stitches at intermission, then took three stitches after the game.

The Sixers, who host the next three games, beginning tomorrow night, were a picket fence, a forest of thorns, throwing themselves in the way of every Lakers pass, move or shot. The Staples Center fans rooted for their darlings, the defending champions, seemingly not understanding the depth of what they were watching. The Lakers got a win and what should be another sobering dose of reality. It seemed questionable how many others in the arena comprehended.

"If you were just watching the game because it's the championship, you probably don't understand," said the Sixers' Aaron McKie, who played 40 of a possible 48 minutes despite having suffered a chip fracture in his right ankle Wednesday night. "But if you're a true basketball fan, you can grow to love and appreciate the way that we play. We're going to give 100 percent. Every night you're going to get your money's worth. If you're up 20 points on us with five minutes left, we're going to play 'til the last whistle. That's our team makeup. "

That explains how the Sixers seemed undaunted by 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists from the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and a stunning performance of 28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists and eight blocks from O'Neal. In the face of that, the Sixers' Allen Iverson scored 23 points, Mutombo had 16 points and 13 rebounds, McKie had 14 points, Todd MacCulloch 13 and Eric Snow 12.

Did somebody say this was a David and Goliath series?

"Didn't David win? " Sixers coach Larry Brown asked. "I thought that was pretty competitive. That's what my mom told me. "

But this wasn't about Hollywood smoke and mirrors, these were the Sixers doing what they always do, doing what precious few people - although the number is beginning to swell - believe they can do.

Even as they were down 86-75 with 6:03 remaining, they were suddenly within 89-86 on a layup by Mutombo with 2:25 left.

The Sixers frightened the Lakers with Brown using all 11 of his available players by the second quarter. He used Raja Bell for 18 minutes, MacCulloch for 16.

"You ever think we'd make a comeback with some of the people we had on the court? " Brown asked. "It's amazing when kids give effort. . .I'm sitting here and I'm pretty proud of my team. "

His players didn't try to hide their disappointment behind their pride.

"Am I disappointed? " Iverson asked, cradling his sleeping son Deuce and his daughter Tiaura on his lap. "Yep. You could say that. That's a good word for it. I felt like we were supposed to be going back 2-0. "

The final daggers came from the Lakers' Derek Fisher, who drained a 25-foot, three-pointer at 2:09, and Ron Harper, who knocked down a 9-footer at 1:19.

"We've just got to stay mad," the Lakers' Robert Horry said. "They're like a bunch of gnats. As many times as we tried to swat them away, they keep coming back. "

The Lakers seemed to sense what was happening. The game ended with Bryant and Iverson jawing at each other, although both said it was "just basketball. "

The Lakers, despite their imposing skills, remain the glitz and glamour, the strutting stars of the league. The Sixers are the antithesis of that, the lantern-jawed battlers who seemingly are in over their heads, but never really are. They left the floor clapping their hands, applauding themselves if no one else would.

"It's the effort that we gave," Iverson said. "Not throwing in the towel. Knowing that a team that's supposed to dominate us, a team that's supposed to have swept us almost didn't get out of here with a win, up 12 points [actually 86-73 with 7:10 to go]. . .They said we played a thousand percent game last game; I wonder what percentage we played this game. "

Brown and Iverson openly wondered about the respect factor, although Iverson carefully said "the officials have the hardest job in the world. " Still, Iverson, who generally gets double-figure free throw attempts, was 0-for-4 from the line. Both teams had 26 attempts.

"But I'm not whining about that, please believe me," Iverson said. "[The officials'] job is just like ours, the same thing. They're professionals just like we're professionals. They're going to make some good calls, they're going to make some bad calls. I don't care anything about that.

"But I know, as long as we play hard every game, play every game like it's our last, it's going to be a series. And it's not going to be easily predicted. You're not going to say, 'This is going to happen,' and it happens. It's basketball. We've got too much heart over here. "

Brown insisted the Sixers were not asking anyone to believe in his team, but said: "I guarantee everybody who watches us play has admiration for us, and anybody who loves basketball the way I do thinks we're helping the game. That's enough for me."