The glamour engagement of West and East, of Kobe and The Answer, of Shaq and all comers, turned out to be not at all glamorous.
It came to be about--gasp--plain old defense, thrilling as Larry Brown's wardrobe.
Even as Kobe Bryant pressed his scoring average, and then as Shaquille O'Neal gradually rediscovered a shooting stroke, the budding NBA rivalry spun on Bryant's defense against Allen Iverson, on a season-high seven blocked shots by O'Neal, and of a perfectly tenacious effort by the Lakers.
The Lakers beat the hardscrabble Philadelphia 76ers, 96-85, Tuesday night at Staples Center, for a moment sacrificing the NBA's leading scoring average for the grit that wins championships.
"It shows we are capable of playing this type of defense if there's this big of a challenge," Bryant said. "We contested every shot and that's all we wanted to do."
The Lakers, winners of eight of nine games, smothered the 76ers. Iverson scored 27 points but made nine of 27 field-goal attempts. The 76ers made 35 of 87 (40.2%). Then, when the offense was absolutely necessary, the crowd chanted "Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!" He scored on alley-oop dunks, on Jordanesque fall-aways, on three-pointers, and finished with 36 points, 16 in the fourth quarter.
Before the game, Laker coaches made defense the priority. It took. So sound were the Lakers that Iverson had a shot blocked by O'Neal with 2:07 left, O'Neal was called for a foul, and Iverson turned to an official and said, "That was no foul." Two minutes earlier, O'Neal took a charge against Tyrone Hill, ending up flat on his back. The crowd stood and applauded the sacrifice.
"I thought we really focused on what we wanted to accomplish tonight defensive," Coach Phil Jackson said.
O'Neal, who huffed through a difficult game Sunday against Dallas, and appeared to stew about it for a couple of days, scored 27 points and took 20 rebounds. He made five of six three throws two days after making five of 19 against the Mavericks and being taken out of the game at crunch time.
"I haven't seen him that mad in a while," forward Horace Grant said. "He was more upset about the free throws.
"I'd love it--get 25 points and 14 rebounds a night. That's subpar for him. But, being one of the superstars around here, he wanted to be out there on the floor."
Asked to describe Shaq's mood for the past 48 hours, Grant smiled and said, "All business."
There is a massive talent gap between the Eastern and Western conferences. Start with this: Theo Ratliff, your Eastern Conference All-Star center.
Work your way from there.
That being said, the 76ers have done all that could be asked of a team in among lesser teams. They arrived 14-3, well ahead of New York in the Atlantic Division. They arrived 7-3 on the road, even with Monday's night's loss in Denver.
So, they are winning in the East, which is like walking into your kid's second-grade classroom and winning the spelling bee.
The 76ers will return to the East Coast impressed by the basketball they found here.
"They're the best team," Brown said. "They're so well coach and Kobe is playing at an unbelievable level. They have the best player in basketball in the middle. He dictates things on both ends of the court."
O'Neal got off slowly. Guarded first by Nazr Mohammed and then by Todd MacCulloch, O'Neal missed his first seven field-goal attempts. He didn't make a shot from the floor until more than three minutes had passed in the second quarter.
He did, however, make his first two free throws, both in the method prescribed by Buzz Braman, O'Neal's East Coast shot doctor. The sight of those free throws falling through the net brought large cheers from the crowd.
The Laker offense required more than its usual effort because the easy points from O'Neal did not come until later. He scored 17 points in the second half.
Approached on the subject before the game, O'Neal plugged his ears with his thumbs. He wasn't in the mood. Jackson, however, predicted better times at the free-throw line, particularly in the fourth quarter.
"It happened last year too, a similar situation," Jackson said. "He buckled down and started making his free throws. I started leaving him in the game. We weathered a few of those games and we went on about our business. I left him in at times last year when it was risky, when parts of the coaching staff might say, 'You might want to think about taking him out because they're going to foul.'
"I chose at many times last year to leave him in. And survived."
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The race for home-court advantage in the NBA playoffs, which is determined by best record:
Karl Malone, the most prolific forward in NBA history, passed Wilt Chamberlain and trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in points. D6
With 31 points Tuesday, Karl Malone moved into second place on the career points list:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 38,387
Karl Malone 31,443
Wilt Chamberlain 31,419
Michael Jordan 29,277
Moses Malone 27,409
Thrown to 'Wolves
Minnesota owner Glen Taylor will be suspended and General Manager Kevin McHale agreed to a leave of absence. D6