Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sixers outclass the Lakers

This article was originally published in the Inquirer on February 15, 2001.

It was time. Kobe and the Kid, one chasing the other all season for titles and trophies, had to meet.

After a thrilling All-Star Game on Sunday, when Allen Iverson eventually outdueled Kobe Bryant for the Most Valuable Player trophy, you knew this would be good. The Los Angeles Lakers, reigning NBA champions with combustible chemistry, at the 76ers' house.

West meeting East, in what so many people in Philadelphia would love to see as the NBA Finals matchup.

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Kobe and the Kid.

Advantage, the Kid.

Behind Iverson's spectacular 40 points and a career-high 12 by Nazr Mohammed, the Sixers avenged a loss earlier this season at the Staples Center to beat the Lakers, 112-97. They did it in spectacular fashion, outrunning the Lakers and outgunning Bryant in front of 21,005 fans at the First Union Center, the largest crowd of the season and fifth-largest ever for a Sixers game.

"I just play basketball," Iverson said. "I think that's the thing that's been helping me the most. I approach every game the same way. . . . I want to play well against everybody. Then, when you play well against another great player, it's only natural to feel good. "

Playing without Matt Geiger, suspended by the NBA yesterday for violating the league's steroids policy, the Sixers never trailed by more than two points, and never in the second half. With an 82-70 lead after three quarters, the Sixers started the fourth with a 10-4 run while Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant watched from the bench.

Once O'Neal and Bryant were back in the game together, it was too late. The Sixers held on to improve to 38-14 overall, 16-8 at home and 12-8 against the Western Conference, and they snapped the Lakers' four-game winning streak. The Lakers dropped to 32-17 and 12-11 on the road.

"It's not a statement game," Sixers forward George Lynch said. "In order to be a championship team, we have to play against every opponent like it's our last game. "

After a season-long chase, Iverson entered the game tied with Bryant for the scoring lead. Both players went in averaging 30.1 points per game. But after the game, the Kid is now king. Bryant did not score in the fourth quarter.

Iverson made 14 of 29 shots, added nine assists and led all scorers. Bryant finished 7 of 13 from the floor and recorded 18 points, seven assists and seven rebounds. O'Neal led the Lakers with 29 points.

"We're trying to win a championship, and that's the most important thing for us right now," Iverson said.

The last time Bryant and Iverson met, on Sunday, Iverson left with the all-star MVP trophy. In their other meeting, in December, Bryant scored 36 to Iverson's 27 as the Lakers won, 96-84.

But Iverson was adamant about winning this game. As the third quarter ended with the Sixers on top, he rose off the bench, a blue towel around his shoulders, and motioned toward the crowd to cheer even louder. When he stood at the free-throw line with 1 minute, 26 seconds remaining, Iverson was showered by chants of "MVP! MVP! "

And when he walked off the court with 1:24 left and his team ahead, 108-90, Iverson jumped into Tyrone Hill's arms, hugged Toni Kukoc, and fell into Aaron McKie's grasp.

Then the "MVP!" cheers started anew.

"It was a big win for them," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I don't remember seeing [coach] Larry Brown that animated. They obviously were keyed for this game, and we didn't match it. "

In the first half, Iverson scored the first four points of the game - on a jumper, then in the lane over O'Neal. He abused Bryant, one moment driving on him then backing up a step to bury a jumper, then driving around him for a layup.

By the end of the first quarter, after being outscored by 15-2, Bryant looked torqued, and tortured.

It was as if he knew. Knew the Kid had gained on him offensively. Knew the Kid was quicker, sleeker and - get this - more beloved. Kobe, who went from Lower Merion High to the NBA, had been surpassed by the Kid from Virginia who four months ago couldn't do anything right in the public eye but now is the reigning MVP of the All-Star Game, an honor Bryant appeared to covet, given his stellar play in that game.

It was as if Jackson knew, too. Midway through the second quarter, after Iverson abused Bryant with a behind-the-back pass to Kukoc for a three-pointer, Jackson switched a defensive gnat onto Iverson.

Six-foot Tyronn Lue, two years removed from Nebraska, seemed to annoy Iverson. With the game tied, 39-39, Iverson drove on Lue and was fouled. O'Neal picked Iverson off the ground like a rag doll, showing more affection for the Kid than he has for Kobe lately.

Then, with the score tied at 41, Iverson made a pull-up jumper over Lue, and after Bryant made his first three-pointer of the night, scored a layup in transition for a 45-44 Sixers' lead.

The Sixers closed the half with a 10-3 run. Six of those points came from Mohammed, who started at center and played 10 quality first-half minutes.

As Bryant trudged to the Lakers' locker room with nine points and his team trailing, 55-48, Iverson and Eric Snow slowly walked off the court. Snow spotted Mohammed being interviewed on TNT heading to the locker room.

Snow pointed and laughed. The Kid laughed, too.

Ashley McGeachy
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