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March 25, 2020

Retro Observations: Shaquille O'Neal manhandled the Sixers in Game 4 of 2001 NBA Finals

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Sixers-76ers-Lakers-2001-NBA-Finals_Dikembe-Mutombo-Shaq_032520 RON CORTES/USA Today Sports

The Sixers were unable to handle Shaq and the Lakers in Game 4 back in 2001.

The Sixers made their run to the 2001 NBA Finals by defying expectations and overcoming obstacles at every stage of the journey, but there was one obstacle they could not overcome: Lakers big man Shaquille O'Neal. L.A. moved within one game of a title with a comfortable 100-86 win over the Sixers in Game 4, setting the Lakers up for a road close two nights later.

Here's what I saw, 19 years later. 

The Good

• You can't say that Allen Iverson played in one way and never altered his approach during this series. After living (and mostly dying) by the long two for a lot of the first three games, Iverson took it upon himself to get into the paint early in Game 4, and his willingness to seek contact was what allowed the Sixers to sustain a tiny bit of offense in a game where they otherwise had nothing going.

That approach, mind you, was hampered by the personnel surrounding him. Iverson would get into the heart of the defense and find himself surrounded by big bodies, and his best outlet would often end up being Eric Snow on the baseline, just 15 feet away from the rim. That made it easier than it should have been for teams to send help into the paint and contest his looks at the rim, and it's not as though the undersized Iverson had an easy task there anyway. When you compare it to the triangle the Lakers had Shaquille O'Neal in, with outlets on the perimeter and cutters moving into space, there was no comparing the merits of the two setups.

It's hard to fault Iverson for not being able to find space that simply wasn't there. Though Larry Brown did plenty of tinkering throughout this series, there's only so much you can do to pivot in a big moment at this stage of the season. Add on top of all this that the Lakers were able to get away with some pretty physical defense to stop him from getting into the paint in the first place, and that was just about a wrap on Philly's season.

• The only lineup change that I think you could say might have made a difference with hindsight actually ended up happening in Game 5. Eric Snow was one of Philadelphia's only real positives throughout this series, and perhaps the Sixers' season ends differently (at least in less embarrassing fashion than this game) if the Sixers had gone smaller from the opening tip.

Snow was one of Philadelphia's only reliable self-creators in Game 4, as was the case throughout the series, using his strength to shed Lakers defenders in traffic and finish around the basket. For all the headaches his shooting (lack thereof) created, at least you could say that he could get past the first layer of L.A.'s defense from time to time, which is more than you could say about the rest of these guys.

And true to form, Snow's defensive contributions continued to make a difference, at least as much of a difference as you could make in a game where the other team was comfortably in front for most of the evening. He made at least one or two of these plays in every game the entire series:

Brown would go back to Snow as a starter for Game 5 after leaning on him as a member of the first five all season, but by then the Lakers had a stranglehold of the series. 

The Bad

• The historical view of this series is that this is the game where Philadelphia's legs finally gave out, dead from an exhausting playoff run and a pair of crushing defeats that could have gone the other way. It was definitely a factor, if not physically than at least mentally, for a Sixers team that kept having to climb out of holes against one of the most dominant playoff teams in league history.

Yet on rewatch, I find myself looking at the collapse of Philadelphia's identity, even in small chunks, as a reason this one tilted early and spiraled out of their control. By the time Larry Brown tried to jumpstart them with some quick changes, it was already too late. And that's not a critique of Brown, who was in basically an impossible situation here. His team was banged up, and some of Philadelphia's guiding philosophies were exploited during the Lakers' bounce-back game in Game 2. 

The Lakers started killing the Sixers with leak outs in transition to counter Philly's emphasis on the offensive glass, and with Brown pulling his players back more in Game 4, the Sixers ended a lot of possessions with one-and-done looks. They didn't have the halfcourt creativity or scoring punch for that to be a sustainable way to play, but they were forced to choose between sticking with a strategy that L.A. had weaponized against them or sacrificing a critical piece of their halfcourt identity.

On the other end, there was an even bigger fight to win, with Shaquille O'Neal absolutely manhandling people in the paint. Those Sixers had an aversion to double-teaming — which made sense with a roster filled with tough, athletic defenders — but they tried to send as much help as they could to slow down L.A.'s unstoppable center. It would end up undercutting them, with Shaq passing beautifully out of double teams and other Lakers players killing them with back cuts and open jumpers. It didn't go any better when they doubled Kobe Bryant.

They ran into an interesting paradox: the Sixers were a team revered for their ability to fight back into any game, yet the roster was really only built to play one way. They were either going to smother you on defense and ride Allen Iverson on offense and get back into a game, or they were in trouble. And that is really the shame of the Iverson era, because the worthy second star never came.

• Even with that context, the Sixers had a chance for an improbable comeback within reach early in the fourth quarter, bringing the game within eight points with Aaron McKie at the free-throw line and the home crowd fired up. What happened after that? Shaquille O'Neal walked down the floor and dunked Dikembe Mutombo into oblivion, and the Lakers would come up with a killshot run shortly afterward.

The free-throw line is probably the most under-discussed problem the Sixers had in this series. If anything, the Lakers came in with a much bigger question mark there, as Shaq's free-throw issues were the inspiration for a foul-heavy strategy that still lives on with different players today. And while O'Neal continued to struggle at the charity stripe, the Sixers were incompetent enough to help level the playing field, which shouldn't have been possible with their guards leading the charge there.

For all the talk of this Sixers team being a tough, fundamentally sound group, they sure came up small in this fundamental part of the game.

• Nobody's reputation has suffered in my eyes as much as McKie's after watching and remembering how bad he was in this series. When you look back at a lot of the inflection points in each individual game, McKie was the guy who often ended up with the ball in his hands and an open shot to make a difference. Time and time again, he came up small, and his defensive contributions were nowhere near enough to make up for how bad he was on offense.

Once again, it's worth noting that he was banged up like crazy during this series, and when you consider how much time he had to spend chasing Bryant with a chip fracture in his ankle — on top of a hand issue he picked up during the Philly leg of the series — it is understandable that the wheels came off for him. But the consolidation trade Philadelphia made for Dikembe Mutombo midseason put much more pressure on McKie, the Sixth Man of the Year in 2001, to help shoulder the load for the Sixers on offense.

If this game happened in the social media era, with one of the best players on the team shooting 1/9 in a must-win home game in the biggest series the franchise has had in decades, McKie would have been roasted so hard he might consider abandoning his native city for life.

• Throughout this Retro Observations series, one of my sticking points has been supporting Mutombo, who has been remembered as a guy who got flat-out punked in this series but held up better than I expected through the first three games. Well let me tell you this — Game 4 was a whole different ballgame. O'Neal absolutely manhandled him in this one.

O'Neal came into this game with such an edge that I almost felt bad watching Mutombo get his ass kicked down there. It's not really his fault that one of the great physical forces in league history put the screws to him, because O'Neal did this to decorated big men of all sorts during his physical prime, but it hurt more for Philadelphia because of the stakes involved and after trading for Mutombo for the explicit purpose of slowing down the likes of O'Neal, Tim Duncan, etc. in a potential Finals matchup.

The shame of it is Mutombo had another stellar offensive performance, sprinkling in some good work in the post on top of attacking the offensive glass. It was not enough with the unstoppable force he was up against just mowing him down.  

The Ugly

• The Sixers letting George Lynch play in the NBA Finals with a broken foot that wasn't completely healed is pretty on-brand. Lynch saying he might break the foot in the next regular season anyway, so "Why not break it in the Finals?" is an incredible quote, however, and it really is a shame they didn't have him at full strength for this series.

Speaking of Lynch, the broadcast mentioned at one point that Larry Brown didn't feel very comfortable playing Lynch at all, given the state of his health, but felt he owed it to him to let him contribute given his role in the team's success that season. Lynch would play just under eight minutes, including as part of the fourth-quarter push that nearly brought them back into this game, and I credit Brown for not just throwing one of his trusted guys back into a high-volume role out of desperation, because many coaches probably would have if they were told their guy was technically okay to suit up.

• O'Neal sitting at the podium and saying, "I wish he would stand up and play me like a man instead of flopping and crying" to Mutombo was an even better quote than Lynch's. I wish we had more players in today's game going at guys throats like O'Neal used to.

But here's the most important bit — O'Neal's quotes and mind games were not just empty rhetoric. After exchanging words with Philadelphia's starting center between Games 3 and 4, O'Neal came into a must-win game for the Sixers with bad intentions, absolutely leveling Mutombo every chance he got on the low block. Rewatching the game, Mutombo ended up suffering for doing exactly what O'Neal asked him to do, not getting the benefit of the doubt on what should have been some obvious offensive foul calls on O'Neal elbows to the head/face.

I think there are legitimate gripes to be made about how much contact O'Neal was able to get away with, but I'm also of the mind that players who act as the aggressor tend to (and deserve to) be rewarded for taking the contact to their opponent. The Legion of Boom Seahawks got away with pass interference on a lot of possessions for basically the same region, because if you play with a constant edge, the officials are not going to call you for everything, particularly if you're an MVP-caliber, headline-generating star.

And really, more stars should take advantage of that dynamic in the way O'Neal did in this game and this series. I would rather watch players who get the benefit of the doubt from officials because they're playing hard and physical than guys who are trying to game the system by constantly selling and exaggerating contact. Not everybody is built like Shaq, of course, but I will never fault a guy for taking every last inch the game and the officials will offer him. 

• This game got so bad that Mark Madsen was getting a little shine in the second half. Absolutely despicable. 

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