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March 19, 2020

Retro Observations: Game 3 of 2001 NBA Finals is forgotten 'What if?' moment in Sixers history

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AllenIversonGame32001Finals RON CORTES/SIPA

The Sixers' Allen Iverson is dejected after missing a shot and not getting a foul called during Game 3 of the 2001 NBA Finals.

With a chance to take back control of the 2001 NBA Finals on their home floor, the Sixers found themselves in a dogfight with the Lakers right down to the final minutes. But even with Shaquille O'Neal sitting on the bench with six fouls, the Sixers fell short, disappointing a raucous crowd in a 96-91 loss.

Here's what I saw, 19 years later.

The Good

• This game is perhaps the quintessential "box score doesn't tell you everything" performance for Allen Iverson. If you boiled this down to the fact that he took 30 shots to get to 35 points, as a lot of people viewing the game through today's lens might do, you would chide Iverson for inefficiency and not playing a style conducive to success. 

Watching it is a much different story. I thought Iverson straddled the line of appropriate aggression almost perfectly for a lot of this game, and with more capable teammates history smiles fondly on this performance.

Early on in this game, Iverson was magnificent, teaming up with Dikembe Mutombo to get his big man rolling early by sucking in the defense and dropping off pass after pass for Mount Mutombo. There were times in this series (and even in this game) where Iverson's pursuit of his own shot blinded him to shot opportunities that were there for his teammates. Not so in the first quarter, which naturally ended with the score knotted up at 25-25.

Iverson didn't give up trying to playmake after the first quarter, but he was let down by some shoddy finishing and shooting from his running mates. That left him in a pretty terrible position, forced to try to create for himself against a defense willing to sell out to stop him, and he still managed to succeed in spite of that. 

On the broadcast, Doug Collins grew frustrated at times that Iverson was spending so much of the game firing away from the perimeter instead of trying to get into the teeth of the defense. I'm sympathetic to Iverson's plight in this specific game — two different Lakers players fouled out, but the officials let a lot of physical contact go for both teams, which favored O'Neal and Kobe Bryant more than it does a guy built like Iverson, tough as he was. In the circumstances, he did a pretty good job of finding pockets of space in the L.A. defense, with a lot of his made jumpers following good on-ball screens from Mutombo and Philadelphia's other bigs.

And when O'Neal got into foul trouble and the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter, Iverson began willing himself to the line, shooting 12 free throws in the final period after managing just one attempt in the first three. His three misses at the stripe were painful in a game decided by just five points, but this was not a case of a player stubbornly sticking to one style for an entire game.

As I said following Game 1's rewatch, all watching this series has done is to confirm my belief that Iverson would kill in today's NBA. Given additional space and better-fitting teammates, he would have eaten people alive with that first step.

• I settled in to watch this series expecting to roast Dikembe Mutombo for getting absolutely blown off of the floor by Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal certainly got his and made life absolutely miserable for the Sixers in all five games, but rewatching these games 19 years later, I find myself mostly impressed by O'Neal and less critical of Philadelphia's big man.

In Game 3 especially, a lot of O'Neal's made field goals came on the exact shots you would want him to have to settle for. Baby hooks, baseline shots, floaters, all plays where he's having to use skill to beat the Sixers, rather than just barreling over guys with strength. Mutombo did a decent enough job in this game of standing his ground and minimizing the layup and dunk attempts O'Neal got, it just turns out that an all-time great is going to find a way to get his regardless.

On the other end, Mutombo had his best game of the series in Game 3, teaming up with Iverson for some nice two-man game and nailing a bunch of baseline jumpers and mid-range shots to keep O'Neal honest. Putting up 23-12 on 9/14 from the field while trying to slow down the opponent's best player would have been enough to get a win against basically any other team or player in the league at the time. It's hard to point the finger at Mutombo for not being as good as an all-time great.

• Eric Snow is not unlike a lot of Sixers guards who have come after him in that if you're judging him strictly through box score contributions, you're not going to come away all that impressed with what he brought to the table. He was not an attack-minded player, but he looked to drive enough to put pressure on L.A.'s defense, and he was one of the keys to making their small-ball looks work when Larry Brown would eventually turn to them late in games.

Every game in this series, Snow made little plays to allow the Sixers to climb out of holes. Be they needle-threading passes in transition or hustle plays in their trapping defense, Snow seemed to pop up whenever the Sixers really needed to make something happen:

I obviously wasn't covering the team back in those days, but I wonder why Brown waited until the final game of the series to insert Snow back into the starting lineup. Even with Snow hurt, the Sixers were pretty obviously better when he was on the floor. 

• The broadcast getting close enough to the Lakers' pre-game huddle for us to hear Shaquille O'Neal tell his Lakers teammates, "F--k these motherf--kers, let's get in their ass" is absolutely incredible, and I really wish we lived in a world where people weren't so sensitive about cursing so we could get this kind of in-game content from the rim mics in today's game. I love this stuff.

The Bad

• If you were to tell me that you'd heard a rumor that Tyrone Hill was shaving points in this series to pay off an outstanding gambling debt out of fear of having his legs broken, you wouldn't have to spend much time trying to convince me that story was true. Every minute he was on the floor was an abomination, and with a replacement-level performance in the same spot, I am convinced the Sixers may have won this series or at least one of the pair from Games 2 & 3.

There were other players who were bigger disappointments in this series by virtue of better reps (looking at you, Aaron McKie) but no one was as actively harmful to the winning cause as Hill. He couldn't hit shots, he got worked on the glass, passes and rebounds bounced off his hands to go directly out of bounds, and his attempts to make up for his failures often got the Sixers in more trouble. Through three games, there were at least 4-5 occasions where Hill tried to make wild attempts to secure loose balls and rebounds and ended up careening so hard into Lakers players that all he accomplished was adding to the team foul total.

While he was supposed to make his money on the defensive end, he ended up digging himself deeper overcompensating for the poor offensive series. Needless gambles like the one you see below left everyone else scrambling to make up for his lapses.

(By the way, Horry threw that thing the hell down on Mutombo.)

I had low expectations for Hill from what I remembered about watching him play, and he dug so far under that already low bar that dirt and dead bodies are blocking the view of it. 

• As a playmaker, McKie had found a way to get by after a tough start to the series, racking up eight assists in Game 3 against three turnovers. While there wasn't a lot of high-level playmaking, we're talking about a guy who looked like he could barely dribble a basketball in Game 1, so reasonably competent play with the ball in his hands was a major step up.

Unfortunately, the hits kept coming in the health department for McKie, who was already dealing with a chip fracture in his ankle coming into the series and had to play with a soft cast around it just to be able to play. In the first half of Game 3, McKie jammed his hand in a collision with Kobe Bryant, retreating to the bench in visible pain and eventually getting his hand wrapped before returning to play.

McKie would eventually ditch the wrap after struggling badly in the period immediately after checking in with it, but at that point it was clear there were too many hurdles to overcome. Can you blame a guy for struggling to make shots and/or finish while dealing with an ankle issue and a hand issue simultaneously?

But with McKie mostly out of commission, that didn't leave the Sixers with many reliable scoring options. Even if you set aside their terrific one-two punch, the Lakers were given lifts by role-players of all sorts throughout the series, including in this one, when Robert Horry had a killer fourth quarter to add to his reputation as a big-game contributor. With McKie far from full strength, the Sixers had a tough time trying to match the Lakers.

• This going under "The Bad" in the sense that it was bad for Philly, but Kobe Bryant's first-half performance in Game 3 was absolutely outrageous. Bryant dropped 20 on 62.5 percent from the field while playing every minute of the opening half, and every shot that went down felt like it had a higher degree of difficulty than the past attempt. It didn't matter who was on him, it didn't matter where he was on the floor, there was a stretch starting at the end of the first transitioning right into the second quarter where anything Bryant put up was going down, and the Sixers simply had to ride it out.

Philadelphia did a much better job against him in the second half, not coincidentally because Raja Bell played over 13 minutes compared to just three in the first half. Bell made Bryant work a lot harder than any other Sixers defender, and the Philadelphia native shot just 3/14 in the final 24 minutes, once again playing the full half while still making terrific defensive plays in the final minutes.

Even with Bryant shooting poorly in the second half, he came up with a tough runner in the final two minutes, and the fear factor on defense never really dissipated. With O'Neal out of the game, the Sixers opted to double Bryant in the final moments rather than letting him try to beat them himself. And, well, you know how the story goes from there:

But that's the kind of impact shotmaking like Bryant's has on a team and on a coach's decisionmaking. Trying to force someone else to beat you is the sensible thing to do, you'd just hope the ball ends up in the hands of someone besides an infamous big-shot maker. Seriously – the guy's nickname was Big Shot Bob. 

The Ugly

• The amount of shoehorned puns during the broadcast, pregame, in-game, post-game, is the only downside of the presentation back then. Now those bad jokes have just migrated to Twitter, which I'm not sure is a better option, but at least easier to avoid during a game.

• If there was a game in this series where you could point the finger at officials for helping to decide the outcome, it was this one. Three missed calls stand out, and all of them involve Shaquille O'Neal, the most dominant player in the league at the time.

The first was an elbow Mutombo took to the face from O'Neal in the first quarter, which resulted in (for some reason) two free throws for the Lakers' big man. The second was a play at the close of the first quarter where O'Neal scored on a layup that clearly came after the shot clock had hit zero, which the broadcast even circled back on during crunch time, pointing out how huge those two points were that never should have counted.

And then there was this call, which was attributed to Brian Shaw and helped O'Neal avoid his sixth foul for several extra minutes before he was eventually sent to the bench early for another shot to Mutombo's grill:

The home crowd in Philadelphia was convinced this call was on O'Neal, rising to their feet and roaring at the prospect of the Lakers closing the game without him for five-plus minutes. Much to their chagrin, it didn't work out that way.

The other two plays had concrete results: two made free throws for O'Neal, two points that shouldn't have counted for O'Neal. This one is a lot harder to pin specific meaning to, because so much time was left in a close game. Do the Sixers pull it out without O'Neal out there for even longer, or do the Lakers survive with the smaller look that brought them to the finish line? 

Ultimately we will never know, but it's another wrinkle in one of the forgotten bad losses in Philadelphia sports history. With a 2-1 lead at home, maybe the series unfolds differently the rest of the way. But after having to claw back into two straight games following a grueling run through the Eastern Conference Playoffs, you got the feeling after the loss that the Sixers may be reaching the end of their rope. 

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