PHILADELPHIA — The floor at the First Union Center was so stuffed with people that, from above, it appeared that someone had dumped a massive jar of human jelly beans all over the court. Where would they put all these bodies? Fans with signs. Celebrities from Jesse Jackson to Chris Rock. Photographers, dancers, women in halter tops, men in silk suits. Then the lights dropped and drummers emerged and fireworks exploded and an inspirational film clip announced the 76ers to their first home championship crowd in 18 years. By the time they bellowed,
“ALLEN …THE ANSWER …IVERSON!” the roar was so loud it could puncture flesh.

Enthusiasm? Attitude? If enthusiasm and attitude could win a championship, then the Philly faithful — “BEAT L.A!” — would surely — “L.A. S—-!” — have this thing — “KOBE S—-“! — wrapped up.

Unfortunately, only 10 men are allowed to play at one time, and five of them have to be from L.A.

And, as it turns out, even if the guy Philly most wants out of the game is gone, the Lakers can still find a way to win.

Here was Shaquille O’Neal, fouling out of Game 3 with more than two minutes to go. Shaq was sucked into four offensive fouls — four? — trying too hard to jam home his point. Dikembe Mutombo, Philly’s multilingual center, did a fine job of flopping just about every time Shaq touched him. Someone should sign Mutombo up for the NHL. He could be worth his weight in power plays.

But O’Neal brought it on himself. He doesn’t need to show how tough he is. Just score and jog down the court. He can pretty much do it at will.

Instead, late in the fourth, he elbowed Mutombo in the jaw, and Dikembe played it for all it was worth. The whistle blew — again! — the crowd erupted, and that was it for O’Neal, the biggest threat out there. His sixth foul. You are the weakest link. Good-bye.

“That’s a shame,” O’Neal would lament afterward. “On our team, we play defense, we don’t have any floppers.”

Mutombo “flops, he cries. I wish he’d stand up and play me like a man…. You can quote me on that, and underline it three times.

“Me getting four offensive fouls? That’s an embarrassment.”

Not that anyone in the Philly crowd minded. When Shaq left, the fans were all but delirious, visions of a 2-1 lead dancing in their heads.

But as big as O’Neal is, he’s not the only guy in purple.

Give a hand to …Robert Horry?

On this night, the defending champs turned to Robert Horry, a non-starter, a guy who has been in L.A. so long, he’s probably written a screenplay. With O’Neal gone, Horry hit a huge three-pointer from the corner with just under a minute left.

Then he went down and grabbed a key rebound, made several free throws. He finished with 15 points, four rebounds, and walked off a winner.

“Robert Horry played a great game,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

“That’s what teammates are for,” Kobe Bryant said.

Wait a minute. Kobe? Isn’t he the guy who’s supposed to step up when Shaq goes down? Well, yes, but what we’re finding in this three-headed monster of an NBA Finals — Bryant, O’Neal, Iverson — is that, as good as they all are, none of them runs for 48 minutes.

Kobe was hot and cold all night. At one point he hit eight in a row. Then again, he didn’t score a basket all fourth quarter until two minutes left. Then again, when Shaq went down, it was Kobe who made the big hoop. Then again, it was Horry who had to ice it.

You get the point?

Iverson: ‘We didn’t give anything away’

Iverson, meanwhile, had another one of his gutsy one-man efforts that just wasn’t enough. He shot 12-of-30, finished with 35 points, but couldn’t score on a final drive. The way he was introduced Sunday night, and this being the first NBA Finals game in Philly in 18 years, you might have expected some 60-point effort and a glorious finish.

But if the loss took steam out of the fans, it didn’t seem to affect Iverson’s confidence.

“We didn’t give anything away,” he said afterward. “We battled to the end. Remember, to most people this series was played before it was even started. We’re showing a lot of character to come out and compete with all that’s going on out there.”

“Do you think L.A. has shown you respect?” he was asked.

“Oh, they respect us. They respect us. They’ve got to. We ain’t gotten blown out yet. Every fourth quarter we’re in the game.”

That is true. But behind Iverson’s swagger you could almost sense the missed opportunity. He’s very smart. He knows. You’re not going to get Shaq on the bench too often in the final minutes.

“We’re not dead yet,” Iverson said again before leaving. And that’s true. But the Lakers lead the series, 2-1. In the end, for all the noise and fireworks, that’s the thing that speaks the loudest.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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