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March 18, 2020

Retro Observations: Sixers lineup change came too late to pull off Game 2 comeback in 2001

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Allen-Iverson-Sixers-76ers-Lakers-2001-NBA-Finals-Game-2_031820 RON CORTES/USA Today Sports

Allen Iverson just didn't have it in Game 2.

The Sixers had an opportunity to go up 2-0 on the supposedly invincible Lakers in Game 2 of the 2001 Finals, and behind an improbable comeback late in the fourth quarter, they almost pulled off the impossible. But early mistakes and woeful free-throw shooting doomed them in the end, with the Lakers knotting the series up at 1-1 with a 98-89 victory.

Much like Allen Iverson's Game 1 was remembered for the classic stepover moment, this game is remembered for Shaquille O'Neal nearly putting up a quadruple-double. That's tough to top.

Here's what I saw, 19 years later.

The Good

• Further down this article, I will take Larry Brown to task for some weird decision-making with lineups that ultimately cost the Sixers. But there was a decision he made in the fourth quarter that ultimately gave the Sixers a chance to climb back into a game that looked to be out of reach, and it was decidedly antithetical to how they tended to set up. That's right — Brown played small-ball.

There was no real acknowledgment of it from the announcing crew, but the Sixers went to a lineup of Iverson-Snow-McKie-Bell-Mutombo, and put all their effort into trying to press and trap the Lakers for the length of the floor, knowing they needed to create turnovers in order to climb back into the game. Pressure defense was a big part of Philadelphia's identity during the 2000-01 season, but more often than not, they had two brutes in the frontcourt, which left them liable to being exposed if teams could beat the first wave of pressure.

By leaning on the unproven Bell and putting four guys on the floor who could hound ballhandlers in the backcourt, the game started to turn in Philly's favor. Marv Albert and Doug Collins made numerous comments about the Lakers looking like they were buckling under pressure, and for a while, that looked to be true. These forced turnovers came on back-to-back defensive possessions in the fourth, as the Sixers slowly chipped away at the lead:

This game is most often remembered for Shaquille O'Neal nearly putting up a quadruple-double, and he was an absolute load in the paint on both ends of the floor. Philly's lack of shooting led to a lot of misguided drives into the paint, where O'Neal turned away all comers at the rim, and they played petrified of him in the paint for most of the game at the other end. But the effectiveness of Philadelphia's full-court defense in the fourth quarter (along with foul trouble) slowed down O'Neal and the Lakers' offense — he managed just four points in over 10 minutes of action in the final frame, and Philadelphia didn't put him on the line once, a contrast to L.A. being in the penalty for an extended part of the fourth quarter.

Extra minutes for Bell, who played the entire fourth quarter after playing just six minutes the rest of the game, also provided an answer for Kobe Bryant, who had cooked the Sixers for the first three quarters. I don't know that going to what was effectively a four-guard lineup would have worked in extended action, but given the play of two of their starters and some of their bench options, it doesn't seem crazy to suggest they should have leaned on this look more.

• One of the things that stood out from watching Games 1 and 2 and comparing it to my memory of the series is Eric Snow being better than I remembered. His inability (and at times, unwillingness) to shoot was still maddening in the L.A. portion of this series, but he was instrumental in the success of their pressure defense, and it is not surprising that when Brown was looking for a desperation option to change the series late that Snow was inserted back into the starting lineup.

Honestly, it seems surprising looking back that Snow was out of the starting lineup to begin with. Most of Philadelphia's best runs in Game 1 and 2 came when the three-guard set of Iverson-Snow-McKie was out on the floor together, and it's not like he or McKie were defensive slouches that were going to be exposed. Besides, if it meant that someone like Rick Fox was going to go off and try to beat the Sixers on his own, that's an outcome you probably live with.

I'll say this — through two games, you can't convince me Jumaine Jones was offering absolutely anything, so at the very least it would have been addition by subtraction.

• This was a rough series for Aaron McKie in more ways than one. Throughout Game 2, you could tell he was not right physically, fading in and out of pain depending on how much adrenaline was pumping through him at a given point in the game. When you're already being tasked with trying to chase Kobe Bryant around the court, it's going to be hard to shrug off injuries and deliver on both ends.

McKie still made the best of it in Game 2, looking a lot more like the Sixth Man of the Year than the broken down guy he was in Game 1. There was a sequence in the third quarter where it took three attempts for him to finally get a bucket, with McKie pulling down multiple offensive rebounds in a crowded painted area. The mental component was there, the effort was there, and his body just wasn't. It's a shame because he had much more to offer.

• We'll get to Todd MacCulloch's issues below, but he certainly gave the Sixers everything you could have hoped for on the offensive end. O'Neal made him look foolish on a couple of occasions around the rim, but he held his own offensively, running the floor, pounding the offensive glass, and doing his best to make L.A.'s MVP work as hard as he could.

The Bad

• After offering up what may be the best individual Finals performance in Sixers history in Game 1, Allen Iverson came crashing back down to Earth in Game 2. As is the case with every small guard who shoots first and asks questions later, there are costs to building around an Iverson-style player, and they were put on full display in this one.

The hardest thing to measure in raw impact was the premium Brown placed on attacking the offensive glass on Iverson's misses, be they long jumpers or tough shots around the rim. You can see why they did it, as there are times in the series where pounding the boards turned into second-chance points or at least extra shot attempts for Philly. But the Lakers' perimeter players made a much more concerted effort to leak out in transition on long Iverson jumpers in Game 2, punishing the Sixers for their aggressive approach to offensive rebounding.

It's interesting to watch today because the league has shifted in the exact opposite direction, skewing ultra-conservative in an effort to get back and defend in transition. I don't think you could say it was necessarily the "wrong" strategy with the personnel the Sixers had, but it had its weaknesses, and Phil Jackson was smart enough to recognize and react to them in Game 2.

Back to Iverson — he did not get a friendly whistle in this game. The NBC broadcast featured multiple mic'd up conversations between Iverson and official Steve Javie, and though they were cordial enough they did not earn Iverson a friendlier whistle. He finally lost his cool at the end of the third quarter, and he certainly had a case, as his jumper came up short because of a hit he took on his elbow.

I think this game is an example of why a lot of current players exaggerate contact and/or flop. When Iverson made it a point to sell clutching and grabbing from L.A. in this game, the whistles came. Otherwise, they were mostly silent. I'm not here to give lessons to Iverson on how to draw fouls, because he was exceptional at it, but additional gamesmanship likely would have served him well here.

• One of the biggest criticisms I can make of Larry Brown is really one that applies to most basketball coaches throughout history: playing a guy for the sake of having a "traditional point guard" who isn't a scoring threat in any meaningful way is needlessly handicapping yourself. In this game and this series, that becomes quite obvious.

With all due respect to Kevin Ollie, who lasted a long time in the league and seems like a fairly beloved guy, he served absolutely no purpose in this game other than to waste precious seconds of the shot clock the Sixers could not get back. He didn't even look up to shoot open jumpers, his passing and ballhandling was only good enough to make the read right in front of his face, and wasting time with the ball in his hands when you were just trying to get the ball to Iverson anyway is maddening to rewatch.

The worst part about it is the Sixers weren't even creative in how they diagrammed these actions to get Iverson the ball, which is why you see the Lakers jumping so many of the cross-court cuts he makes and either creating a fast break or knocking the ball out of bounds to reset the possession. You have a guard who is one of the quickest downhill players of all-time, and a good chunk of his time is spent going side-to-side just trying to get the ball. It's insufferable.

• The bigger lineup issue in this one was the decision to play Todd MacCulloch at power forward, which would be batshit insane today but still looked crazy within the context of the game. MacCulloch actually had a decent individual game on offense in this one, scoring 13 off of the bench and giving the Sixers a spark after Matt Geiger had provided one in Game 1. But there was just no way to get away with having a man with his foot speed at power forward, and the Lakers punished Brown for going that route.

Those Sixers were not especially fond of double-teaming the post, but they changed that approach for a talent like Shaq. In and of itself that's a defensible position. But if you're sending help from the power forward spot, you need a guy who is going to be able to make the proper recoveries if and when the center gives the ball up. MacCulloch was not equipped for that, whether it meant stopping Robert Horry from cutting into space or closing on an open jumper.

Philadelphia's help defense wasn't very impactful across the board. O'Neal had nine assists on top of his 24 points when all was said and done, and the game's most important play was a Derek Fisher three in the final minutes with the Lakers clinging to a three-point lead, Iverson too late to contest the dagger. But long before they reached that point, they basically gift-wrapped a bunch of points for L.A. by sticking with MacCulloch in an ultra-big look. With Horry standing across from him, it was an especially bad decision.

• An issue that had nothing to do with coaching or strategy — Philadelphia's horrific free-throw shooting in the fourth quarter. 

A lot of Philadelphians look back on this series as one that was tilted by the way they officiated Iverson, but the MVP, Bell, and McKie combined to go 2-for-12 in the final period, with Snow (4-for-4) the only guy who acquitted himself well. Bell (2-for-6) was the only other guy who even made a free-throw, with Iverson and McKie putting up goose eggs. The physical defense the Lakers were able to play can't be overlooked, but getting 16 free-throw attempts in the final quarter of an NBA Finals game is an absolute gift, and the Sixers vomited all over themselves under pressure.

For a guy like Bell, who had only signed with the team in early April, buckling under the stress of the moment was easy to understand. Even still, talk about a missed opportunity.

• It is hard to overstate how much of a difference it might have made if someone with a pulse had taken Tyrone Hill's minutes. The Sixers got outscored by 17 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor in these Finals, and even that feels generous.  

• But if you are looking for a singular reason why the Lakers came up with the win in Game 2 they couldn't pull out in Game 1, the answer to me is simple — Kobe Bryant looked a lot more like Kobe Bryant in this one. The Sixers kept the Philadelphia native from getting going in their only win of the series, but Bryant broke out early in this one, helping to sustain the offense in spite of some early struggles for the rest of the Lakers in Game 2.

You can see why the Lakers were basically unstoppable with Bryant and O'Neal still interested in co-existing. Every reaction you might have to L.A. setting up on offense had a painful side effect. Double Shaq and shooters get free. Overplay a Bryant drive and he had the passing talent to find O'Neal for easy layups and dunks. Single-cover Bryant and he was liable to shoot over smaller defenders or go by slower ones. There were not many feasible solutions, especially not for a team that was missing George Lynch, who was probably their best perimeter defender.

This was the game where you started to realize the absence of Lynch would matter in this series. Maybe he wouldn't have stopped Bryant altogether, but he would have been part of a better solution — and Brown would have had another guy to potentially goad him into small-ball looks with more frequency.

The Ugly

• The Sixers were so banged up heading into this series (and throughout it) that NBC's Lewis Johnson actually brought a fake foot and ankle on during the pregame period in order to show the difference between a chip fracture (which Aaron McKie had) and a hairline fracture (which Eric Snow had). This is actually insanely good stuff, but it says a lot about the slog of the playoffs for Philly:

LEwis Johnson 2001 Finals Game 2

The Lakers, on the other hand, had breezed through the Western Conference with little resistance. It added up in the end.

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