LOS ANGELES -- Into a sticky Wednesday night it appeared, staggering across 11th and Figueroa with a swollen face, missing tooth and torched shorts.
Almost didn't recognize it.
Then peered into its bloodshot eyes.
Saw the reflection of Kobe Bryant taking silly shots, Shaquille O'Neal clanking important free throws, Derek Fisher disappearing.
Saw a softness in one corner, and panic in another.
Then remembered. Oh, yeah.
A Los Angeles Laker loss.
The first one to show up in this town in 67 days.
Anybody else forget how frightening it could look?
History disappeared and doubts returned Wednesday in a game so big, four quarters couldn't contain it.
The Philadelphia 76ers' 107-101 overtime victory over the Lakers came in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and what could be Part I of this city's nightmare.
There was supposed to be confetti. But the only thing that sprinkled from the sky was Allen Iverson, landing on everything, eventually impossible to brush away.
There was supposed to be singing. But there was only a stereotype come true, the one that says Philly teams are always tougher than L.A. teams, bruisers versus prancers, heart versus glitz.
That couldn't have been more valid Wednesday if Sly Stallone had shown up, walked to the scorer's table, and punched out Jack Nicholson.
"We got heart," Iverson said later. "We gonna play with that first. Play with talent second."
Put away the brooms, or at least give them to your ugly cousin from Broad Street.
Forget the notion -- a dumb one anyway -- that these Lakers are the greatest team ever.
Concentrate instead on this:
Iverson is right. And heart doesn't just disappear. Neither does defense. Neither does coaching.
Philadelphia had all of that Wednesday, which could lead one to believe that the 76ers will have it again Friday, and again in Philadelphia on Sunday, and ...
Which means exactly what Shaquille O'Neal meant when he said, "Now it's a series."
And now, after knowing more than we'll ever need to know about how the Lakers handle themselves in wealthy times, we'll learn something more important.
Such as, how do they handle themselves when flat broke?
When they blow a 13-point lead in regulation and a five-point lead in overtime?
When Bryant blows a chance to win the game in the final moments of regulation by dribbling into three defenders and bouncing the ball out of bounds?
When they essentially slow down and stop playing after taking that lead in overtime, with a stretch that included a silly Robert Horry offensive foul?
When Fisher scores as many points as I did?
The good news for the Lakers Wednesday was that in Tyronn Lue, they may have found someone to irritate Iverson.
The bad news was that Lue irritated about 18,000 others when he threw up a wild layup with the Lakers leading by one in overtime.
The good news for the Lakers was that O'Neal will be as unstoppable against these guys as he was against the Sacramento Kings, scoring 44 points and hitting virtually every big basket.
The bad news was the yips.
They're back. The ones in O'Neal's foul shot. He hit only 10 of 22 free throws, which would have been normal for him about five years ago, but his teammates are now counting on better.
In the first three playoff series, O'Neal either made the big free throws, or the Lakers were leading by so much it didn't matter. On Wednesday, he missed all four of his free throws in the final 6:25 of regulation.
This changes the game, and could change this series. Especially if Bryant doesn't change.
One could say, well, how bad can it be when the Lakers lost by only six points on a night when Bryant hit only seven of 22 shots and scored 15 points with six turnovers.
However one with less patience -- OK, me -- could remind him that Michael Jordan thrived in brawls like these, and how in the world did Bryant only work his way to the foul line once?
"They got into Kobe's body, he really didn't clear himself for shots," said Laker Coach Phil Jackson.
In other words, the 76ers roughed him up. And he wasn't the only one. They roughed up most of his teammates, with the exception of O'Neal and soon-to-be-shorn Rick Fox.
It's not that the rested Lakers were rusty. It's that the 76ers were crusty.
Matt Geiger fought with O'Neal on the floor until that O'Neal rolled over his head. Tyrone Hill shoved Horace Grant and Robert Horry across the paint.
Dikembe Mutombo stood in the middle and fearlessly blocked five shots that San Antonio's guys never would have touched.
And when is the last time you've seen someone jump in front of Bryant and take a charging call like Aaron McKie?
"We've been in different wars, like, all season," Iverson said.
The Lakers haven't been in a war like this one since early spring.
The 76ers didn't only get into Bryant's body, they got into some of his teammates' heads.
Now we'll discover exactly where those heads are located. And how much stuff is underneath those shirts.
"One positive that came out of it is that we don't have to hear all the sweep talk," Bryant said.
I assume I speak for all of Los Angeles when I say, "Yippee."
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