PHILADELPHIA — Before Game 4 Wednesday night, the First Union Center scoreboard showed a video of a cartoon Shaquille O'Neal rampaging through downtown Philadelphia, only to be knocked out by a little animated Allen Iverson, who loaded a basketball in a slingshot and fired it at Shaq's head.
You know, the whole David and Goliath thing. Cute.
The trouble with that whole story is, David had no inside game.
The Lakers have an inside game. Because of that, they also have an outside game. Add that together and you have a three-games-to-one lead in the NBA Finals.
It's basketball basics: start inside first and it will eventually win out over an outside team. It all came to fruition Wednesday, when the Lakers pounded the 76ers with the hammer of O'Neal, then tickled them to death with some feathery three-point baskets for a comfortable 100-86 victory.
"We're keeping it simple," Robert Horry said.
The 76ers are doing this the hard way. They were forced to try their luck from the perimeter, their shots looking as futile as ring tosses at a carnival.
Now they trail the series, 3-1. Talk about your longshots. Only two teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to force Game 7, and neither of them won it.
The first half went mostly like this: Lakers got the ball inside to O'Neal for a basket or a foul, the 76ers came down and Allen Iverson or Aaron McKie missed a jump shot.
In baseball, the pitcher wants to get control of the inside part of the plate. In football, the offense wants to establish the running game. In basketball, a team wants to control the painted area by the hoop.
O'Neal feels as if that's his territory, and he thought it had been taken away from him when the officials called him for offensive fouls while making his moves against Dikembe Mutombo. After fouling out of Game 3 he spent the next 48 hours calling out Mutombo and the referees, issuing challenges--in addition to finding time for a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo.
By the time the Big Zoologist returned to action he was primed for a big game--as in 34 points and 14 rebounds (six offensive).
"I told y'all I was coming back with a vengeance," O'Neal said. "That's just the type of guy I am."
Call him generous, too, because he also shared the basketball enough to collect five assists.
That made Phil Jackson happy.
"He didn't have to try to overpower them," Jackson said. "Just kick the ball out; we had plenty of guys that could shoot the ball."
It seemed as if every Laker who stepped off the bench could shoot the ball Wednesday night.
Not including a last-second heave by Mark Madsen at the end of the third quarter, the reserves combined to shoot 10 for 15, including seven for 10 on three-point shots. The Lakers shot 50% overall and 53% (10 of 19) on three-point shooting.
Philadelphia made only one of its six three-point shots.
Horry tried to be generous to the 76ers, saying "They missed a lot of shots."
Much of that was due to the Laker defense. They double-teamed Iverson, making him take 30 mostly difficult shots to reach 35 points.
The 76ers use so much energy pressing on defense and trying to get to the hoop with dribble penetration that their legs are too dead to get good lift on their jump shots.
And when the 76ers shot from three-point range, they were often falling away, trying to avoid a defender rushing out at them or jumping out around a screen.
When the Lakers shot from three-point range, they usually had a chance to set their feet, relax and take aim.
That's because O'Neal draws so much attention. When the ball goes in to him it's as if the court tilts and all of the defenders slide in his direction.
"We got great looks," said Tyronn Lue, who made two of his three three-point shots. "When you have the most dominant player in the NBA on your team, you're going to get wide-open looks."
Said Kobe Bryant: "We could always just throw the ball in to Shaq and just watch the defense collapse. Then we just had openings all over the place."
The 76ers didn't leave Bryant, so he had to find his way to 13 shots and 12 free throws. He finished with a modest 19 points, focusing on rebounds (10) and assists (nine) to make his largest contributions.
Mostly he went along with the Prime Directive, which was get the ball to Shaq.
How did the Lakers fight off an 11-0 run by the 76ers at the start of the fourth quarter, which began with O'Neal on the bench?
"We got refocused, we got the big fella back in the game, we got it inside, he kicked it out," Horry said.
After the 76ers pulled within seven, O'Neal got the ball on the baseline and dunked. On the next trip, O'Neal passed to Brian Shaw for a three-point basket. Next possession, Ron Harper found Horry for a three-point basket near the same spot in the left corner where he made his big shot on Sunday.
Bada-bing, Bada-boom, 11-1 run, ballgame over.
Now the Lakers have one last chance at winning a championship in historic fashion (highest winning percentage, undefeated on the road) when Game 5 begins Friday night at the First Union Center.
"This is going to be an animated place on Friday night," Jackson said.
As we learned Wednesday night, animation just isn't enough against the Lakers.
J.A. Adande can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org