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RINGING ears and frayed nerves at First Union Center

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ The sound level in the First Union Center can challenge the senses with a shake, rattle and roll that leaves ears ringing and nerves frayed.

The noise rumbles down section by section, like a tidal wave of sound making its way from balcony to courtside, designed to encourage the home team and unnerve the visitors.

It might take more than that, though, to disturb the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers are thriving on the road during the 2001 NBA playoffs, winning a record-tying six straight games. They go for No. 7 and a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals on Wednesday night against the gritty Philadelphia 76ers. The playoff record is seven by the 1995 Houston Rockets.

And what about the arena's acoustics?

``We block it out,'' Kobe Bryant said. ``It's just a whole lot of noise. We just stay on an even keel and don't get wrapped up in what they're saying.''

Still, Shaquille O'Neal seemed to bristle a bit when he talked about fouling out of Game 3. He was angry at what he called flopping tactics by Dikembe Mutombo of the 76ers that led to several of the whistles.

``Challenge me!'' O'Neal said. ``Treat me like a game of checkers and play me. That's all I'm asking. Just play. Treat me like Sega and play me.''

The comparison between kids' games and O'Neal in the pivot is a bit of a reach. But it did provide some levity for the Lakers, who are here on a business trip, unconcerned with peripheral issues. At stake is a championship, one Los Angeles won a year ago and wants to take home again.

``The title comes through us,'' Bryant said. ``We're the world champs and you have to take what we have.''

Certainly, the Sixers are trying. They won the overtime opener and just missed in Games 2 and 3. They are limping around on an assortment of broken or bruised bones that has forced coach Larry Brown to go deep into his reserves.

Down the stretch of Game 3, the Sixers had seldom-used Kevin Ollie and CBA refugee Raja Bell on the floor. Todd MacCulloch and Matt Geiger have logged important minutes in the first three games And with George Lynch sidelined by a broken foot, he has been starting Jumaine Jones. Lynch is expected back for Game 4.

``George is going to practice (Monday) and (Tuesday) and at the shootaround on Wednesday and we'll kind of evaluate it then, whether he will play and just what his role will be,'' Brown said. ``I don't anticipate him playing a lot. But he wants to play. He wanted to play (Sunday night). If he does play, I won't start him.''

That means Jones and Tyrone Hill remain in the starting lineup for the Sixers. Their contributions were limited in Game 3, a combined five points and three rebounds.

Then there is the matter of Aaron McKie, worn out after a month of playing defense against top shooters. ``He's struggling physically,'' Brown said. ``He's just physically whipped. He's had to play more minutes with George out.''

McKie welcomed two days off between games. He needs the rest.

``I've had my hands full,'' he said. ``But it's fun. I'm loving it You've got to find it from somewhere. Don't get no better than this. This is the best time of the year to be playing basketball. You're playing in the NBA Finals. I'm enjoying it.''

Despite all the injuries, the 76ers are not being dismissed by Los Angeles. Philadelphia has demonstrated impressive resiliency in the last two playoff series, trailing 2-1 against Toronto and Milwaukee, winning Game 4 in both series and going on to win both series in seven games.

So losing Game 3 at home on Sunday wasn't the end of the world for Brown.

``I don't even look at the home court as a big deal anymore,'' he said. ``We've lost a game at home in every series this year, and we've been lucky enough to get one back and win.''

And for MVP Allen Iverson, that's the bottom line for Game 4.

``We just understand we've got to win the game,'' he said. ``It's simple as that, you know. It ain't much to it. We've got a game. It's on our court. We've got to forget about what happened in the last game and take care of the next game.''
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