- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2001

PHILADELPHIA NBA history says that the Philadelphia 76ers are in a heap of trouble. Never has a team rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals.

And the really bad news for Philadelphia is that the Los Angeles Lakers, having learned their lesson last season when they repeatedly let wounded teams off the hook in the playoffs, sound ready to pounce on their prey.

During their run to the championship a year ago, the Lakers, after winning 65 games in the regular season, never demonstrated a postseason killer instinct. In close-out games the Lakers were just 4-6.

The Lakers allowed the Sacramento Kings, down 2-0 in the first round, to force a fifth game. The Phoenix Suns staved off elimination in the second round by whipping the Lakers 117-98 before bowing. In the conference finals, the Portland Trail Blazers forced a Game 7 classic by winning Games 5 and 6. And in the finals the Indiana Pacers, down 3-1, whipped the visiting Lakers 120-87 before Los Angeles captured the title.

Heading into Game 5 tonight at First Union Center, the Lakers appear much more businesslike this time around. They are 3-0 in close-out games against Portland, Sacramento and the San Antonio Spurs, winning each by an average of 19.3 points. And they saved their most dominating team effort for the elimination of the Spurs, the top seed from the Western Conference, in a 111-72 romp.

"We've been pretty good this year with close-out games," said Shaquille O'Neal, who appears headed for his second consecutive finals MVP trophy. "We realize this is still a feisty team and they're not going to give us anything. So we just have to fight, fight, fight and just find a way to get it done."

Teammate Kobe Bryant said the loss to the Pacers in Game 5 of last season's finals was the first topic of conversation in the locker room moments after the Lakers drubbed the Sixers 100-86 on Wednesday night.

"We put ourselves in a nice situation last year in Indiana and got blown out in Game 5," Bryant said. "But we feel like we've matured so much from last season that it's very difficult for us to imagine us coming into a Game 5 situation and having a letdown like we did last year."

The 76ers are familiar with the history of teams that have fallen behind by the margin they have against the Lakers. They are also aware that a win tonight would give the Lakers the best playoff record (15-1) of any champion in league history, surpassing the 12-1 76ers of 1983.

However, the Sixers have been playing like a beaten team. They appear to be relying solely on the efforts of guard Allen Iverson and center Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson is averaging 35.8 points against the Lakers but shooting just 40 percent. Mutombo, never much of an offensive threat, has averaged 17.8 points against O'Neal and grabbed 50 rebounds to Shaq's 57.

But the rest of the Sixers are not producing. Starting power forward Tyrone Hill has been all but invisible against the Lakers, averaging just 3.8 points. And injuries have pretty much sapped guard Aaron McKie of his game. McKie, voted the league's top sixth man, averaged 15 points in the playoffs. But against the Lakers, McKie, who has a broken bone in his foot, is averaging just 8.3 points and shooting 29.3 percent from the field.

"I don't know why some of our guys aren't playing the way they can play," Mutombo said. "I don't understand why some of us have gotten to the finals and don't appear to be focused."

Mutombo, however, does not feel that the Lakers will walk into the NBA record book tonight.

"I don't think it's over," Mutombo said. "If it was over, I would not leave my bed and my family to come here today."

However, Mutombo's confidence does not appear to be shared by the rest of the 76ers, particularly coach Larry Brown. Brown, named the league's top coach, has not been able to figure out how to slow O'Neal, who wasn't named league MVP this year but is clearly the most dominant player in this series. He's averaging 34 points, making almost 58 percent of his field goals and has ruled the paint against Philadelphia.

"I think you've heard me for three games saying he's the best," Brown said of O'Neal. "I don't know how one player could have done more than he has done in four games."

Said Iverson of the Sixers' chances: "We know it's like mission impossible."

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