Sixers pick L.A. clean

This article was originally published in the Inquirer on June 7, 2001.

First, he made two free throws to pull the Sixers within one point in overtime. Then he followed with a three-point basket.

Allen Iverson then drove right on the ensuing play. He stopped quickly, drilled a baseline jumper, then yelled "Whoa!" right in front of the Los Angeles Lakers' bench.

Whoa, indeed.

Right then, at that moment, what was expected to be a coronation of the Lakers became the making of a potential series for the ages.

Brushing aside the Lakers' mystique - 19 straight wins, and 11 straight playoff wins - Iverson sparked the 76ers to an improbable and shocking 107-101 overtime victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals last night at the Staples Center.

The 76ers' franchise player erupted for a game-high 48 points, scoring seven straight at one point in the pivotal overtime period

With the win, the Sixers took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. Game 2 is scheduled for Friday night in Los Angeles. The win gave the Sixers home-court advantage, beginning with Game 3 on Sunday at the First Union Center.

But the Sixers wisely didn't treat this win as having any more validity than it deserved.

"We came in here expecting to win," said Iverson, who is celebrating his 26th birthday today. "We know who we are and what we can do. Everybody expected us to come in here and get swept.

"That's like a slap in the face to all of us and everything we've accomplished all year. We're not going to act like we've won this series already. We still have business to take care of. "

The win negated a 44-point, 20-rebound explosion from Lakers' center Shaquille O'Neal. It punctuated the disappearance of former Lower Merion High standout Kobe Bryant, who struggled mightily throughout the evening

Dikembe Mutombo added 13 points and 16 rebounds for the Sixers, who also received 13 points from Snow, including a clutch jumper with 10.5 seconds remaining in the overtime session. Matt Geiger gave the Sixers 10 points in 14 minutes off the bench.

"We didn't come here for moral victories," said Iverson, who appeared at a postgame news conference wearing an Eagles jersey. "We came here to win a championship. "

The second half was a tit-for-tat battle, with the Sixers running away with matters one minute, the Lakers doing the same the next.

Iverson erupted for 30 points in the first half. For the game, he shot 18 for 41 from the field and 9 for 9 from the free-throw line. He added six assists and five steals.

O'Neal, hit just 10 for 22 from the free-throw line. Bryant shot just 7 for 22 from the field and finished with 15 points.

"They played excellent defense," Bryant said. "They did an excellent job of pressuring our backcourt and not letting us get into our game. We'll go back to the drawing board, congratulate them on winning Game 1 and we'll be back for Game 2, that's all. "

Ultimately, the waning moments would determine both teams' fate for one game.

"We've got so many basketball experts," Iverson said. "But the only guys that know are the guys out on the floor. We've got heart. We're going to play with that first, play with the talent, second.

"You expect people to bet on the Lakers. There's some broke people out there. I'm just glad nobody bet their life on it. Because they'd definitely be dead right now. "

By the time 5:38 remained in the third quarter, the unthinkable was happening. The Sixers led, 73-58, looking to snatch home advantage away from the Lakers. That awakened O'Neal, however, which is usually a very bad thing to do.

O'Neal scored on a slam off a spin move. A hook shot followed. Then another slam and a layup and, before the Sixers knew what hit them, the Lakers were on a 15-4 run, ending the third quarter down by only 79-73.

Eventually, that run would extend to 19-6, pulling the Lakers within 79-77.

A competitive game was in session.

The same could be said once 4 minutes, 10 seconds remained in regulation.

By that time, the Sixers - while not employing the Hack-a-Shaq philosophy - certainly seemed to be doing so, with Geiger having fouled out and Mutombo saddled with five fouls. Still, the Sixers were up, 92-90, mostly because O'Neal missed four straight free throws and five of his last six attempts from the foul line.

But O'Neal had hit 15 of 24 shots from the field by then. He was his usual dominating self. The Sixers' best answer was double teams, Raja Bell pressuring the ball - and Bryant. As the game waned, it was more than enough.

With 3:30 left in regulation, Bryant drilled a jumper after rolling off a screen from O'Neal, tying the game 92-92. With 1:57 left, Bryant penetrated the seams of the Sixers' defense, then fed O'Neal for a thunderous slam, giving the Lakers a 94-92. But Snow came back, scoring on a driving layup with 1:38 left.

The game was tied. And when Bryant drove into the teeth of the Sixers' defense, turning the ball over, it was Philly's game to win, which the Sixers seemed more than capable of doing.

Just 18.9 seconds remained. Iverson had one last chance. The Sixers would not have to surrender the ball, but Iverson never got a chance to touch it.

Denied with tenacity by miniature Lakers guard Tyronn Lue, Iverson had to play the role of spectator as the clock waned, the Sixers bobbled their last possession, and Snow was forced to heave a three-pointer at the buzzer.

It missed. Overtime had arrived.

It seemed as if the Sixers had let their best chance at victory slip through their fingers.

Until Iverson stepped up.

Stunningly, the Sixers ended the first half with a 56-50 lead. Surprisingly, Matt Geiger contributed to their success. Predictably, so did Iverson.

Iverson served notice immediately, erupting for 15 straight points in the second quarter. He finished with 30 first-half points.

The Lakers had no defense for Iverson. Derek Fisher couldn't stop him. Bryant couldn't, either. Lakers coach Phil Jackson earned a technical foul for screaming at referee Joey Crawford about a call that Jackson thought favored Iverson.

Iverson's heroics, on display throughout the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs, were expected to hit a snag in this series. Early in the first quarter, it seemed as if that could happen.

The Lakers, playing to the level that had spurred an 11-0 playoff run and 19 straight wins overall, looked to be toying with the 76ers early.

The Lakers scored first, then surrendered a three-point field goal to Sixers guard Aaron McKie to open the game. A fastbreak layup from Iverson followed.

But then, the Lakers started to roll. A slam from Horace Grant, two free throws from Rick Fox, another slam from O'Neal and a three-pointer from Fox ignited a 14-0 Lakers blitz. With 4 minutes, 23 seconds left in the first quarter, the Lakers led, 21-9.

"We play our game," Bryant said before the game, "we can beat anybody. "

Iverson hit a fallaway jumper, then followed a three-point play by Mutombo with two more jumpers and a fastbreak layup. And suddenly, the Lakers weren't playing "our game," as Bryant described. The first quarter ended with a 13-2 run by the Sixers. The Lakers led, 23-22, after one quarter.

"We've got ourselves a game, now," former Lakers great - and now part-owner - Magic Johnson said. "That's the way it should be. "

Iverson gave the Sixers the lead by hitting another jumper 10 seconds into the second quarter. He remained in that groove for the rest of the first half.

And Geiger had found his.

He drilled a pull-up jumper with 8:07 remaining in the half, then added another 37 seconds later. Geiger eventually added two more jumpers - scoring eight of nine Sixers points during one stretch. He even tussled with O'Neal on the floor for a loose ball. That turned teammate George Lynch - his biggest critic on the team - into one of his cheerleaders.

But with 4:15 remaining before the break, Geiger's performance took a back seat to the show Iverson was putting on.

He hit two free throws. Then a jumper. Then another jumper. Then two more free throws. He followed with a steal and a layup, then two more free throws and a three-pointer.

Iverson shot 11 for 24 in the first half; the Sixers shot 22 for 44.

The Sixers collected 15 points off 10 Lakers turnovers. Mutombo had 10 rebounds and three blocks. McKie chipped in with six assists.

A thunderous follow slam by O'Neal with 0.7 seconds left completed the first-half scoring. He answered Iverson's run with authority.