What exactly are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers playing for, again? Is it a golden championship trophy and rings dripping with diamonds, or is it the admiration and affection of basketball fans? Is it about the bling-bling or the heart thing? It was difficult to tell as the NBA Finals turned out to be more complicated—delightfully so—than almost anyone had imagined. After their 96-91 victory on Sunday in Philadelphia gave them a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, the Lakers appeared poised to hold off the Sixers and win their second straight title, but the fact that the outcome was still so uncertain represented a triumph of sorts for Philly.
In a span of only five days the public went from being enthralled by Los Angeles's dominance to being enraptured by the 76ers' determination, which was embodied by the six feet of scar tissue that is Allen Iverson. The Hollywood glitterati riding the Lakers' bandwagon surely understood that the battered and bruised Iverson was the most compelling character in this drama, stealing every scene whether in victory or defeat. Shaquille O'Neal may have been far more imposing than Iverson and Kobe Bryant may have been more versatile, but it was the pencil-legged Iverson who commanded attention with his tireless, mile-a-minute pace and unwavering look of defiance.
Any thought that the Sixers might have been intimidated by the Lakers, who came into the series with a 19-game winning streak, was erased first by Iverson's 48 points in Philadelphia's 107-101 overtime victory in Game 1 and then by two more symbolic acts: He engaged in a trash-talking session with Bryant at the end of Game 2 and hopped over a fallen O'Neal while keeping his dribble in Game 3. Said Los Angeles assistant Jim Cleamons, "Even though I'm sitting on the other bench, trying to figure out ways to stop him, I have to admit that it's fun watching the little guy."
It wasn't entertainment value alone, however, that made Iverson the focus of attention; his play was the key to the first three games of the series. True, those games generated other storylines, including the emergence of 76ers guard Raja Bell, a 24-year-old Florida International and CBA alumnus who helped hound Bryant into 7-of-22 shooting in Game 1. Before signing with the Sixers on April 6, Bell was playing in a rec league in Boca Raton, Fla., on a team for which he was the second offensive option, behind his father. The Lakers roared back to win Game 2 in Los Angeles 98-89 behind O'Neal's near-quadruple double (28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists, eight blocks). Then in Game 3, after O'Neal had fouled out, L.A. rode the heroics of forward Robert Horry, whose 12 fourth-quarter points included a baseline three that broke Philadelphia's back.
Whatever the outcome of the three games, they established a pattern that was likely to continue the rest of the series: When Iverson shook free for a spectacular game, the Sixers won; when the Lakers limited his field goal attempts, they won. After Iverson's 48-point outburst, Los Angeles held him to 23 points on 10-of-29 shooting in Game 2 and 35 points on 12 of 30 in Game 3. Former President Bill Clinton, who attended Sunday's game, once won the White House by following the battle cry, It's the economy, stupid!—a reminder that every other factor in the race was relatively insignificant. For Los Angeles, the outside shooting of its role players and how O'Neal and Bryant fare against the Sixers' double teams may be important, but ultimately only one thing matters: It's guarding Iverson, stupid!
"I know they're going to focus on me," Iverson said after Game 2. "They're going to try their little tricks and traps to keep me from getting 40 every game. I understand that. I'm just going to get the ball to my teammates and have faith that they'll knock down shots."
While that's an admirable sentiment, Philadelphia needs Iverson to shoot. Sixers center Dikembe Mutombo has provided low-post offense, but with swingman Aaron McKie battling torn ligaments in his right thumb and a chipped bone in his right ankle—"He has no legs," coach Larry Brown said after Game 3—the perimeter scoring simply isn't there. Iverson's 29 shots in Game 2 and 30 in Game 3 weren't enough; the 41 he took in the opener (of which he made 19) was closer to the requisite number.
Iverson presents a unique challenge for a defense, because the 76ers' system allows him almost unprecedented freedom to fire whenever and from wherever he pleases. The Lakers were certainly braced for the onslaught. "The guy is probably going to take 40 shots even if you're guarding him well, and 50 if you don't," guard Derek Fisher said after Game 1. "I've never seen anything like it." The next day Cleamons stood at midcourt in the Staples Center after L.A.'s practice. "He'd probably take one from here if you didn't keep an eye on him," he said. "It's draining for guys, physically and mentally, to know that they can never relax even for an instant when they're guarding him."
The Lakers' opening gambit to corral Iverson came before the series even began, with a not-so-subtle attempt by coach Phil Jackson to enlist the officials' help. Describing to the media Iverson's ball handling style, Jackson made it sound as if Iverson tucks the ball under his arm and totes it as if he were a running back. "Our Most Valuable Player in the league carries the ball maybe three, four times on every play," Jackson said. "He's capable of running at you with the basketball and then putting it down, which makes it almost impossible to cover that little rascal."
Iverson does get away with palming on occasion, but so does Bryant, and O'Neal sometimes parks himself in the lane for more than three seconds without drawing a whistle. "C'mon, man, this is the NBA," said Los Angeles forward Rick Fox after Game 1. "We all get away with something." The referees seem to feel the same way; Iverson wasn't called for palming in the first three games.