Role players could hold key to NBA Finals

Jun 12, 2001 11:04 AM

Many basketball fans have been surprised at how competitive the NBA Finals have been through the first three games. Philadelphia shocked the Los Angeles Lakers in game one by building a huge lead but then needing overtime to end the Lakers’ dream of a perfect postseason run. The 76ers then held tough for a half in game two before that patented Laker spurt put Philly away to even the series at a game apiece. Game three was up for grabs down the stretch despite the Lakers having led most of the way. Through the first three games the 76ers could just as easily be up two games to one as they now trail by that margin heading into game four this Wednesday.

We’re seeing the backup and support players for both Philadelphia and Los Angeles make both teams better. Most intangibles are not measurable in terms such as points, assists and rebounds but both teams have role players content to complement stars such as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and Allen Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo of the 76ers. The likes of Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Horace Grant and Rick Fox have made the Lakers the team they are while much the same can be said for Philadelphia’s Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, Jumaine Jones and Tyron Hill. Much of the credit must also go to the coaches - Phil Jackson of the Lakers (seeking his eighth overall championship ring as an NBA coach) and Philly’s Larry Brown (seeking his first). Both coaches have shown over the years an ability to handle strong personalities and they’ve been able to ego-manage their teams so that the results on the court are truly greater than the sum of the individual talents might suggest.

As to the remainder of this series game four will be critical in determining how much of a fight the 76ers will put up. A win by Philly in game four could push this series the distance, with game five also in Philadelphia before heading back to Los Angeles for whatever games remain. But a loss by Philadelphia in game four likely means our prediction of the Lakers in five games would come true. Philadelphia has already shown they can play on even footing with the defending champs. The 76ers have not backed down and have shown no signs whatsoever of being intimidated by the duo of Shaq and Kobe. Expect Philadelphia to put forth on of their best efforts on the season on Wednesday night in game four and the four or so points will be worth taking. If Philly pulls the outright upset and forces at least a six game series then game five presents a situation that might well call for a pass. The Lakers would be small favorites in game five but Philly would be on such a surge that the temptation to back the Lakers in game five might have to be ignored. Philly will believe that the only way they truly have a chance to win the series would be to take a 3-2 edge back to the coast. But the Lakers are still the better team and would be, again, attractively priced. Anything could happen and the 76ers would have the momentum for game five.

If, however, the Lakers win game four they will likely win game five on Friday and end the series on the road. Should the Lakers win game four they should be considered for play in game five if laying no more than five points. It will be rough for Philly to match game four’s intensity again in game five once they have fallen in game four. The Lakers have shown an ability to go for the kill moreso than in recent seasons.

If there is a game six it would be played next Monday in Los Angeles. If the Lakers are somehow down 3-2 they would be the play despite being a double digit favorite. It would be hard to see the Lakers losing in six games and they’ve shown an ability to take charge early in games previously in the Playoffs. If the Lakers are up 3-2 when returning home for game six it might be best to take a pass.

The Sixers would normally be attractive as a huge underdog having already won twice in the series but championship-deciding games often have a way of getting out of control.

The Lakers could break open a tight game in the second half as they’ve done several times in the Playoffs and you could be holding a ticket on Philly plus a dozen and be in great shape midway through the third quarter only to see the Lakers go on a 14-4 spurt. Philly would take even more desperate shots to get back in the game and it could become a laugher. It would be tough to lay the double digits in this scenario but it might be even more uncomfortable taking double digits.

Now, if there’s a game seven, some interesting possibilities exist. And if the series survives five games those possibilities will be presented next week.