MILWAUKEE -- There's no such thing as a moral victory in the NBA playoffs. If there were, the Philadelphia 76ers would have a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
With the injured Allen Iverson watching from his hotel room and phoning in his support, the Milwaukee Bucks had a surprisingly tough time defeating what remained of the 76ers.
In a game that stayed close longer than it should have, the Bucks held off the Iverson-less 76ers 80-74 on Saturday in Game 3.
"That was fun," Sixers coach Larry Brown said. "I walked into that dressing room, and I don't think I've ever been prouder of a team than I was tonight.
"It doesn't get any better for me as a coach - except for the result."
Iverson stayed at the team hotel to rest his sore left hip, making it seem like the Sixers were sacrificing a game for the sake of having a healthier Iverson for the remainder of the series. But Iverson's coach and teammates did not roll over and quit.
Holding the Bucks to just four points over a 9 1/2 -minute stretch of the fourth quarter, the Sixers were within seven points with 3:23 left and had three chances to get even closer but missed shots each time.
By the time the Bucks committed a 24-second violation with 36.6 seconds left, that seven-point deficit was too much for the Sixers to overcome. Aaron McKie hit two foul shots with 34.2 seconds left to make it a five-point game, but Cassell hit a foul shot and McKie missed a 3-pointer to end the suspense.
Cassell scored 24 points, Ray Allen had 20 and Glenn Robinson 18 for the Bucks, while Ervin Johnson outrebounded Dikembe Mutombo 13-10.
"If we had won by one point, it still would have been a win," Cassell said. "If we had lost by one, it would have been a devastating loss for the Milwaukee Bucks."
McKie scored 22 points and Jumaine Jones had 16 for Philadelphia, which hopes to have Iverson back for Game 4 Monday.
"I left it up to him," Brown said of Iverson. "I didn't think it was my place to make the decision for him. I'm proud of what he's done. I really appreciate the fact that he tried to play the first two games being as banged up as he was, and hopefully we'll get him well."
Iverson phoned the locker room at halftime to offer his encouragement, but his teammates simply didn't have enough offensive weapons to grit out the victory.
Brown came up with every gimmick he could, slowing the tempo, employing a full court press, using a two-center, three-guard alignment and running his offense through the low post much more than usual. The strategies caused the Bucks some difficulties, which were compounded by their tendency to let up whenever they built a seemingly comfortable lead.
Milwaukee went ahead 73-60 early in the fourth on a jumper by Allen, but then went more than 6 1/2 minutes without scoring a point. The Sixers pulled within six on a 3-pointer by Jones with 7:25 left, but failed to score on their next three possessions.
Robinson and Cassell hit jumpers to give the Bucks a 10-point lead with 4:18 remaining, and they were able to hold off Philadelphia despite failing to score again until 32 seconds remained.
The Sixers had only nine healthy players as Matt Geiger (quadriceps tendinitis) and George Lynch (broken foot) also were sidelined.
Snow replaced Iverson in the starting lineup and had a terrible game, missing all seven of his shots in the first half and failing to stop Cassell from hitting three straight jumpers early in the third quarter.
Snow finished 1-for-11 from the field and 2-for-6 from the line with six turnovers and two assists.
"In didn't try to do too much, I just didn't do anything," Snow said. "I just played awful. If I had played any kind of a decent game, we probably win."
It looked like a bad omen for the Sixers when their first shot of the game, a corner jumper by Jones, hit the side of the backboard. The Bucks took a 7-0 lead and were ahead 17-9 when Brown made his first substitution - inserting 12th man Raja Bell for Jones.
Milwaukee led 24-17 after one quarter but started having trouble with Philadelphia's full-court pressure. Robinson threw away an inbounds pass less than three minutes into the period, leading to two foul shots by McKie that gave the Sixers their first lead, 26-24.
The Bucks then went through a particularly ugly stretch in which they committed three straight turnovers, but the Sixers couldn't capitalize. Philadelphia's biggest lead was three, 27-24, and the Bucks answered with a 9-0 run before settling for a 43-39 halftime lead.
Scott Williams twice rejected shots by shot-blocking specialist Mutombo early in the third quarter, the latter of which led to a jumper by Robinson that gave Milwaukee a 59-47 lead.
McKie hit a 3-pointer and Todd MacCullough converted a three-point play with 2:10 left in the third to pull the Sixers to 63-57, but Milwaukee scored the next six points and took a 69-60 lead into the fourth.
"They're a scrappy ballclub and they have some shoulders. They knew that was their only chance of competing with us," Bucks forward Darvin Ham said. "They hung around the whole game with defense and pure hustle."
Notes: The Bucks improved their franchise playoff record to 96-95. ... The 1993 Chicago Bulls were the last team to overcome a Game 1 loss and advance to the NBA Finals. ... George Karl improved his career playoff coaching record to 56-60, moving past Don Nelson and Bill Fitch into 12th place on the playoff win list.
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