LOS ANGELES, AP
For the first time in a long time, the Los Angeles Lakers showed up at practice and had something to focus on — the Philadelphia 76ers. After more than a week of waiting, the Lakers finally know exactly who stands in the way of them becoming repeat champions — and perhaps the first team in NBA history to go undefeated through the postseason. “We’ve been off for what, 20 years?” forward Robert Horry said Monday. “So it’s going to be hard for us to get our rhythm.” While the vast majority of the NBA universe expects the Lakers to roll over the 76ers in a mismatch, the players themselves were taking a much more piecemeal approach to getting ready. Monday was a day for studying their opponent, Tuesday will be a day for shaking off some rust, Wednesday will be the day when the talking stops and the basketball begins with Game 1 at the Staples Center. “If you asked the players who are going to play whether they believe we’re an overwhelming favorite, right now we have too much respect for the Philadelphia 76ers and what they’ve accomplished to think we’re that big of a favorite,” forward Rick Fox said. “That’s a dangerous mindset to have.” Still, there are plenty of legitimate reasons why the Lakers are expected to win fairly easily. They have a 19-game winning streak, including 11 straight in the postseason. They have Shaquille O’Neal, the most dominant big man in the game, and Kobe Bryant, who is considered in most NBA cities to be the pre-eminent shooting guard in the league. Of course, the folks in Philadelphia would take issue with that assessment, arguing that Allen Iverson proved this season that he is the better player. After all, he didn’t win the MVP award for nothing. Lakers coach Phil Jackson used the words “little rascal” and “monster” in discussing Iverson after the Lakers practiced for about two hours at their training facility in El Segundo, California. While praising Iverson and his teammates for their resilience and talent, Jackson also said that the Iverson-Bryant matchup will not be the key one in this series. In his opinion, the marquee matchup is O’Neal vs. Dikembe Mutombo. “Obviously Iverson vs. Kobe brings a lot of attention, but the matchup is going to be Dikembe and Shaquille, and if they choose to double-team (O’Neal) that will open up the game for us,” he said. The teams split their two meetings in the regular season, both of which took place before the 76ers acquired Mutombo from the Atlanta Hawks, for Theo Ratliff, Toni Kukoc and Nazr Mohammed. Mutombo and O’Neal did not face each other this season, although they have played each other in the past during then playoffs. “Anybody can guard Shaq, it’s a question of whether anybody can stop him,” Horry said. In 1996, O’Neal’s Orlando Magic defeated Mutombo’s Atlanta Hawks 4-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals before Jackson’s team at the time, the Chicago Bulls, swept the Magic in the conference finals. “I remember preparing to play against Orlando, and I was impressed that particular year that Shaquille dismantled Atlanta’s team with Dikembe in there,” Jackson said. Mutombo and O’Neal have faced each other 12 times in regular season games, with O’Neal’s teams going 10-2. O’Neal outscored Mutombo 22.0 to 10.9 in those games, although Mutombo averaged 12.7 rebounds to O’Neal’s 10.5. Coming off their Game 7 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday night, the 76ers gathered at their practice facility in Philadelphia before flying cross-country. With almost 72 hours between games, the 76ers are in the middle of their longest layoff since mid-May when they had two days off between Games 4 and 5 of their series against Toronto. They have been playing exhilarating and exhausting games every other night since then, going through the types of highs and lows that the Lakers haven’t experienced since late March when the Shaq-Kobe feud had not yet died down and no one was quite sure whether they had even earned homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs. Los Angeles has not lost since April Fools’ Day, whereas the Sixers have already lost seven playoff games and have been declared near-dead almost as many times. That recent history of thriving under adverse circumstances has caught the attention of the Lakers, who are not taking this opponent lightly. “The (76ers) are prepared to handle the type of pressure that this situation demands,” Jackson said.”The one thing you know is that they will come in here with an extreme amount of intensity that was generated in that series, so that is to their advantage.” The Lakers have never lost a Game 1 since Jackson became their coach last season, posting double-digit victories in all but one of their seven series-opening games. Philadelphia is 1-2 in Game 1s this postseason, but the 76ers have shown a tremendous ability to shake off tough losses and win the games they absolutely needed to win — Game 2 against Indiana after losing the opener, Game 4 at Toronto after falling behind 2-1, Game 4 at Milwaukee when they were in danger of going down 3-1 to the Bucks. “It seems like a month of Sundays since we played, but it’s only been one,” Jackson said. “So we think we can regenerate where we’re at, but it’s not something you just turn on and off. In the first game we may be a little rusty and our rhythm may be off, but we can use it to get ourselves in sync. “These first games are a getting-to-know-you session where we make adjustments as we go along and bring some type of real rivalry to this series,” Jackson said.