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Lakers going for stirring quartet

A 4th sweep would make history, but the 76ers stand in the way.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 6, 2001

The Lakers don't want to talk about it, which is fine because everyone else does.

The start of the NBA Finals tonight against Philadelphia may be just another playoff game to Los Angeles, but it has escaped virtually no one that Game 1 marks the Lakers' final step toward league history.

After sweeping three playoff opponents, the Lakers are poised to become the first team to run the table in the post-season. Oddly enough, Philadelphia came the closest, going 12-1 en route to winning the 1983 league crown (the top teams got first-round byes then), including a 4-0 sweep of the Lakers.

This will be the Lakers' second attempt at a post-season sweep. In 1989, Los Angeles entered the title series undefeated in the playoffs but were blitzed 4-0 by Detroit. Most analysts don't see that happening this time.

"We don't have a copyright on sweeps," said Lakers forward Rick Fox, whose team split its two regular-season clashes with the Sixers. "We joked about that over the week here. But we're playing selfless basketball. I think we're playing the way (coach) Phil (Jackson) envisioned we would play sooner or later."

After struggling at times in the regular season, the Lakers have won their past 19 games, 11 straight in the playoffs. They beat San Antonio by an average of 22.3 points in the Western Conference final, affording them a nine-day rest while Philadelphia battled Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference final.

Conversely, little has come easily for the Sixers, who were extended to seven games in their past two series. They've had two days of rest since vanquishing Milwaukee Sunday. Plus several players, including star Allen Iverson, are nursing injuries.

"Anybody who is going to play the Lakers after they won 19 straight would be considered an underdog against them," Philadelphia coach Larry Brown said. "But I know my team. I believe in them and you never know what these guys can accomplish."

The Sixers have shown a remarkable will to win this season. They rallied from 2-1 deficits the previous two rounds and bounced back from an opening loss at home in the first round against Indiana.

They pulled it off despite not having all of their key players. Iverson missed a game in the Toronto series with an injured tailbone. And George Lynch has missed the past 10 games with a broken foot.

"When things don't look good, people count us out, and that's when we pull together," Sixers veteran guard Aaron McKie said. "We don't want to go out there just to be there. Our focus is to win the series. Whether it's here or there doesn't make a difference."

The series figures to showcase a compelling matchup between Iverson and Kobe Bryant, arguably the league's two best players this season. Both have elevated their games in the post-season and, at times, have carried their teams.

Iverson, the regular-season MVP, scored 27 and 40 points against Los Angeles in two regular-season games and is averaging 32.1 points in the playoffs.

Expect the Lakers to try to try to deny Iverson the ball, and when he does get it, employ double teams in an effort to force him to pass.

The Sixers will try to do the same thing to Bryant, who has been seemingly unstoppable lately (31.6 ppg in the playoffs). There is also the matter of Shaquille O'Neal (29.3 ppg, 15.3 rpg), who could encounter his most formidable defensive force of the post-season in 7-foot-2 center Dikembe Mutumbo, the league's defensive player of the year.

"Dikembe staying in the game with Shaq, that's the key that everybody is focused on," Brown said of Mutumbo, who hasn't faced O'Neal since joining the Sixers in a midseason trade with Atlanta. "It really depends on the referees and how they call the game. When I had (former Indiana Pacers center) Rik Smits against Shaquille, he fouled out in warmups."

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