Philadelphia will make it a series

The Philadelphia 76ers have the best chance of any team in the NBA to beat the Lakers in the Finals – now that they are the only other team left in the playoffs.

The Lakers have steamrolled through the NBA’s postseason tournament, sweeping every team they have faced in a dominating fashion.

The problems the Lakers’ players, coaches and fans whined about during the regular season were apparently left off L.A.’s playoff roster. Most notably, the question of whether Kobe Bryant’s gigantic ego could coexist with Shaquille O’Neal’s own sense of self-importance has been emphatically answered.

Bryant and O’Neal share about 61 points per game, split almost evenly between them. Bryant is responsible for 31.6 points a game, as well as seven rebounds and six assists. O’Neal picks up the remaining 29.3 points, as well as over 15 rebounds and 2 assists per game. The two share almost equal playing time.

The “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy that teams have had some minor success with against the Lakers is not nearly as effective now that Shaquille has slightly improved his free-throw shooting. Although he is still one of the most horrible foul-shooters ever to play the game, he seems to rise to the occasion often enough to discourage teams from repeatedly putting him on the line.

Teams have thought that by putting O’Neal on the foul line, they could eliminate him as a factor in the fourth quarter. Bryant’s breakout season has established him as a clutch player capable of taking over games in the fourth quarter, whether or not O’Neal is playing.

All of the Lakers’ questions and doubts seem to have been answered. But fans’ memories might drift back to the early ’90s when Pat Riley’s Lakers, in Kareem’s last season and with Magic Johnson still in his prime, swept their way into the finals – and were promptly swept out by the Pistons. The same team that they had defeated for the championship the year before.

The 76ers and Lakers split their season series, but the teams have both undergone changes. The Lakers have changed their attitude, and the Sixers made the midseason trade that propelled them into the finals: acquiring Dikembe Mutombo.

The teams each field two bona fide superstars and depend upon a cast of role players. Iverson and O’Neal, this year’s and last year’s MVP, are First Team All-NBA. Bryant and Mutombo are Second Team.

Iverson is averaging 32.1 points per game, as well as nearly seven assists and 4.5 rebounds in the playoffs, and has shown he can also take over a game late (he dropped 26 on the Bucks in the fourth quarter of Game Six).

Mutombo is playing the best ball of his career, averaging 14 rebounds, over three blocks, and 13 points a game. In addition, Mutombo is an excellent defender who is actually taller than, if nowhere near as strong, as O’Neal.

When teams depend so greatly on two players for the bulk of their production, (Bryant, O’Neal, Iverson and Mutombo all play over 40 minutes a game) foul trouble, injury or wind can change the face of a series.

Even if all the superstars produce, the game can still be decided by the play of the supporting cast. Both teams’ role players consist of capable journeymen like Aaron McKie or Horace Grant, and younger, energetic crowd favorites like Derek Fischer or Eric Snow.

Both benches have exhibited the ability to maintain the level of play set by the starters.

In the end, give Los Angeles the edge on starters, bench, offense, defense, experience, coaching, outside shooting, inside shooting and the home court. But the Sixers have shown just enough heart in their playoff run to earn a few wins in my prediction. The Lakers will win it in six.

Philadelphia, though, holds the trump card. They have the Lakers’ history on their side. In all of the cases (one) in which the Lakers have swept their way into the finals, they were swept out. History could repeat itself. God, at least it should.