Reality check in L.A.: Lakers' talent stymies Sixers

This article was published in the Inquirer on December 6, 2000.

There are times during any NBA season when cynicism should be shoved aside and effort must be rewarded, competitive fervor acknowledged. Count last night as one of them.

Shorthanded on their front line, with the daunting reality of facing Shaquille O'Neal last night, the 76ers neither flinched nor gave an inch. But they surrendered a pivotal three-pointer to Brian Shaw with 2 minutes, 29 seconds remaining to help the Los Angeles Lakers seal a 96-85 victory at the Staples Center in front of 18,997.

The win was the Lakers' third in a row over the Sixers. It extended their losing streak to two games and dropped them to 14-4. Yet if there is such a thing as a moral victory, last night was it.

"I was thrilled," Sixers coach Larry Brown said. "I was just hopeful we could go into the fourth quarter with a chance to win. The only disappointment I had is that [the referees] didn't allow Theo [Ratliff] to play. This kid has certainly earned some respect in this league, yet he got four fouls [three in the first half] that had no effect on the game. Tyrone [Hill] really shouldn't have played. "

The Lakers' Kobe Bryant finished with a game high of 36 points, including an alley-oop slam on a pass from Shaw with 1:24 left that lifted the crowd to its feet and ignited chants of Ko-be, Ko-be.

O'Neal wound up with 27 points, 20 rebounds, 7 blocked shots and 6 assists. The last player to score that many points and get 20 or more rebounds against the Sixers was Chris Webber, who had 27 points and 21 boards for Washington on April 14, 1997.

Allen Iverson led the Sixers with 27 points, scoring most of them late in the game as the team tried to rally. If the Sixers had enough healthy key bodies, the outcome may have been different.

Beforehand, they had learned that Matt Geiger would miss the game because of tendinitis in his right knee. As a result, Nazr Mohammed was in the starting lineup, Ratliff moved to power forward, and Hill, who has a sore right ankle, was asked to perform. Second-year man Todd MacCulloch was the team's primary backup center.

Yet, with about 7:45 left in the fourth quarter, the Sixers were within 69-67, courtesy of a stellar defensive effort that stymied O'Neal all night.

"I think our young guys [Mohammed and MacCulloch] stepped in and played well," Aaron McKie said. "We held up pretty good until the end, until Shaq and Kobe made some big shots and Brian Shaw stepped in and hit some huge ones that opened the game up.

"But all in all, our young guys did a pretty good job, which helped us out a lot. "

Yet when O'Neal converted a three-point play off a layup against MacCulloch with 7:27 remaining, things changed.

Another power layup by O'Neal pushed the Lakers ahead by 74-67, before a beautiful alley-oop from O'Neal to Bryant pushed Los Angeles ahead, 76-69. From there, the Sixers seemed downtrodden.

Once Shaw connected on his three, they were finished. The Lakers were up by 84-73. The Sixers, sensing their own demise, resorted to fouling and letting Iverson go one-on-one.

Too much size. Too much skill. Too much Kobe and Shaq. That's what the end came down to.

Yet, the Sixers were still close. For that, they deserved credit.

They were full of surprises in the first half, much to the chagrin of the defending world champions.

Ten players were used. Rarely used Mohammed actually was effective. And they trailed by just 43-38 at halftime.

For a team owning the best record in basketball, such a feat means little in the big picture. But considering that the Sixers were playing the Lakers, it should have meant a lot.

It added substance to the Sixers' first-half play, considering the circumstances.

Iverson, despite his heroics, was going up against Bryant, and the Sixers' best answers to O'Neal were Mohammed and MacCulloch.

No one could blame the Sixers for being nervous. Yet they responded to the challenge, providing intrigue where few suspected it would occur.

The first quarter ended with the Sixers up, 18-17, and, shockingly, they had held O'Neal to two points on 0-for-7 shooting. O'Neal had three blocked shots by that time, Ratliff had two, and a defensive battle loomed.

Once the second quarter was under way, little had changed.

Bryant was drilling jumpers en route to 14 first-half points on 6-for-15 shooting. O'Neal inched closer, finishing the half with 10 points and 12 boards. Meanwhile, Iverson was on his way to a 3-for-13 performance by intermission.

And still the Sixers did not go away.

Forward George Lynch scored 10 points, mostly on dunks, hitting 5 of 6 shots from the field. The Sixers maintained a level of competitiveness on the boards, getting outrebounded by a mere 25-24 margin. Although they shot just 16 for 44 from the field, they held the Lakers to 17-for-47 shooting.

The teams were identical from the free-throw line (6 for 6) and in the assists' category (seven). Both also led by as much as five in the first half.

As a result, the game was surprisingly even, despite the Sixers' injuries.

"That was our goal, to stay even," Lynch said, "then pull away when we get that opportunity. That's how you play against champions, by just sticking around. "

Despite the five-point deficit, that strategy looked as if it could get the Sixers a much-needed win.