In the midst of a long season, a teasing glimpse of June
This article was originally published in the Inquirer on February 15, 2001.
Fast-forward the calendar.
To the NBA Finals.
That's what last night was supposed to be, at least if you were a 76ers fan and closed your eyes and wished a wish.
The Sixers, who fly in the Missing Man formation every night, take on the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, who occasionally resemble a day care center.
And this is what happens:
The building shivers. In a season absurdly long and filled with irrelevancy, this is one of the electric nights.
Kobe Bryant defending Allen Iverson. Golden Child against The Answer. Out on the right elbow. Between them, they have more moves than a convention of belly dancers.
The ball is tethered to them. They slide about like Jell-O on a wet plate.
Iverson, fresh from that MVP performance in the All-Star Game, and 49 points in Milwaukee the night before, nails a fallaway jumper. If those are going to fall, get out the calculators.
The Lakers go inside. Of course. Shaquille O'Neal with the ball. You hear a diesel engine rumble to life. He goes up to dunk and takes Nazr Mohammed with him. He drops off Mohammed on the third floor and continues on up, taking Mohammed's right arm with him.
Mohammed is starting at center because Matt Geiger's return has been ended at one in a row. He is suspended, by the NBA, for two games. Steroid use. The timing couldn't be worse - six fouls the Sixers won't have for use on O'Neal. And maybe a dozen free throws O'Neal won't have to confront.
And for the Sixers, yet one more missing player in a season replete with them.
Coach Larry Brown shrugs, palms up beseechingly: "The way this season has gone, if something bad doesn't happen, I'm surprised. "
Yet they still lead the whole league.
Meanwhile, Mohammed looks at O'Neal as if to say, Can I have my arm back?
Bryant bangs a three. Iverson bangs a three. Iverson bangs a longer three.
The ball is tethered to them. Surely it is surgically attached. You watch them, darting and accelerating and swiveling on a penny, and their energy level is staggering.
O'Neal makes two incredibly agile and athletic moves, plucking a length-of-the-court pass out of the air when he, and it, are behind the backboard, and somehow reaching back to deposit it. And then he whirls and pirouettes and makes a reverse kiss off the glass with spin.
It's almost like watching an elephant on roller skates. He is so active you forget how large he really is.
Iverson runs into O'Neal and, of course, splatters to the floor. O'Neal bends to collect Iverson in two arms and put him upright.
While O'Neal is holding Iverson, he seems to be saying: "Let's see, loaf of bread, dozen eggs, gallon of milk and one Iverson. Yep, that's what was on the list. "
So, what we know for sure is that the Sixers' best, and only, chance against the Lakers in a seven-game series in June is to force the pace, use all 94 feet, as they did last night.
In a half-court game, they are reduced to jump-shooters, ordinary and vulnerable, save for whatever Iverson can create, which is usually a lot but not enough over a prolonged period of time.
And if they make the Lakers have to run then they negate at least some of O'Neal's post-up domination.
And the Sixers must have a full complement of bodies, and get contributions off the bench. That won't be a problem with Aaron McKie, who reinforced the widely held opinion that he is the consummate professional by uttering not a peep of protest when Eric Snow returned and replaced him as a starter.
The X factor is Toni Kukoc. The Sixers desperately need scoring from him, especially from the perimeter.
Meanwhile, the short-staffed Sixers are doing what they have been doing all during this remarkable season, making do with a make-do lineup.
Mohammed gets his arm back and plays better than anyone has a right to expect. He scores, he rebounds, he stands bravely in against the monolith O'Neal.
Todd MacCulloch is also respectable against O'Neal. The Sixers keep finding new tape, new rubber band, to hold things together.
In fact, the Sixers are playing with such grit that Lakers coach Phil Jackson is actually forced to stand. This is when you know the Lakers are troubled, or in trouble, or both.
The solution to such moments of angst is obvious, of course. Feed the Big Dog. The Sixers have no defensive antidote for O'Neal. Then again, hardly anyone does. The Lakers sometimes drift and forget this.
The Sixers are playing the way they have through their 51 previous games, which is with considerable heart and strong confidence. They seem always to be in their happy place, no matter what new bit of misfortune has befallen them.
And just when you think their tank surely must be as dry as desert sand, Brown scrapes up more fumes.
Now, they look to be on the verge of a blowout. They lead by 17, then 18. The Lakers do not seem terribly interested anymore. But you also know there will be a run.
It's like Jack Dempsey said: "A champion is the one who gets up when everyone says he can't."
The Sixers and the Lakers, the best team of this season and the best team of last season, go at one another with more gusto than they ought to have, considering that the NBA schedule is forcing both of them to play on consecutive nights.
But then they are playing more than one game now. They are playing for June, too.
They are playing to leave an indelible impression on each other.
Just in case . . . just in case . . .