What exactly are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia
76ers playing for, again? Is it a golden championship trophy and
rings dripping with diamonds, or is it the admiration and
affection of basketball fans? Is it about the bling-bling or the
heart thing? It was difficult to tell as the NBA Finals turned
out to be more complicated--delightfully so--than almost anyone
had imagined. After their 96-91 victory on Sunday in
Philadelphia gave them a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series,
the Lakers appeared poised to hold off the Sixers and win their
second straight title, but the fact that the outcome was still
so uncertain represented a triumph of sorts for Philly.
In a span of only five days the public went from being enthralled
by Los Angeles's dominance to being enraptured by the 76ers'
determination, which was embodied by the six feet of scar tissue
that is Allen Iverson. The Hollywood glitterati riding the
Lakers' bandwagon surely understood that the battered and bruised
Iverson was the most compelling character in this drama, stealing
every scene whether in victory or defeat. Shaquille O'Neal may
have been far more imposing than Iverson and Kobe Bryant may have
been more versatile, but it was the pencil-legged Iverson who
commanded attention with his tireless, mile-a-minute pace and
unwavering look of defiance.
Any thought that the Sixers might have been intimidated by the
Lakers, who came into the series with a 19-game winning streak,
was erased first by Iverson's 48 points in Philadelphia's 107-101
overtime victory in Game 1 and then by two more symbolic acts: He
engaged in a trash-talking session with Bryant at the end of Game
2 and hopped over a fallen O'Neal while keeping his dribble in
Game 3. Said Los Angeles assistant Jim Cleamons, "Even though I'm
sitting on the other bench, trying to figure out ways to stop
him, I have to admit that it's fun watching the little guy."
It wasn't entertainment value alone, however, that made Iverson
the focus of attention; his play was the key to the first three
games of the series. True, those games generated other
storylines, including the emergence of 76ers guard Raja Bell, a
24-year-old Florida International and CBA alumnus who helped
hound Bryant into 7-of-22 shooting in Game 1. Before signing with
the Sixers on April 6, Bell was playing in a rec league in Boca
Raton, Fla., on a team for which he was the second offensive
option, behind his father. The Lakers roared back to win Game 2
in Los Angeles 98-89 behind O'Neal's near-quadruple double (28
points, 20 rebounds, nine assists, eight blocks). Then in Game 3,
after O'Neal had fouled out, L.A. rode the heroics of forward
Robert Horry, whose 12 fourth-quarter points included a baseline
three that broke Philadelphia's back.
Whatever the outcome of the three games, they established a
pattern that was likely to continue the rest of the series: When
Iverson shook free for a spectacular game, the Sixers won; when
the Lakers limited his field goal attempts, they won. After
Iverson's 48-point outburst, Los Angeles held him to 23 points on
10-of-29 shooting in Game 2 and 35 points on 12 of 30 in Game 3.
Former President Bill Clinton, who attended Sunday's game, once
won the White House by following the battle cry, It's the
economy, stupid!--a reminder that every other factor in the race
was relatively insignificant. For Los Angeles, the outside
shooting of its role players and how O'Neal and Bryant fare
against the Sixers' double teams may be important, but ultimately
only one thing matters: It's guarding Iverson, stupid!
"I know they're going to focus on me," Iverson said after Game
2. "They're going to try their little tricks and traps to keep
me from getting 40 every game. I understand that. I'm just going
to get the ball to my teammates and have faith that they'll
knock down shots."
While that's an admirable sentiment, Philadelphia needs Iverson
to shoot. Sixers center Dikembe Mutombo has provided low-post
offense, but with swingman Aaron McKie battling torn ligaments in
his right thumb and a chipped bone in his right ankle--"He has no
legs," coach Larry Brown said after Game 3--the perimeter scoring
simply isn't there. Iverson's 29 shots in Game 2 and 30 in Game 3
weren't enough; the 41 he took in the opener (of which he made
19) was closer to the requisite number.
Iverson presents a unique challenge for a defense, because the
76ers' system allows him almost unprecedented freedom to fire
whenever and from wherever he pleases. The Lakers were certainly
braced for the onslaught. "The guy is probably going to take 40
shots even if you're guarding him well, and 50 if you don't,"
guard Derek Fisher said after Game 1. "I've never seen anything
like it." The next day Cleamons stood at midcourt in the Staples
Center after L.A.'s practice. "He'd probably take one from here
if you didn't keep an eye on him," he said. "It's draining for
guys, physically and mentally, to know that they can never relax
even for an instant when they're guarding him."
The Lakers' opening gambit to corral Iverson came before the
series even began, with a not-so-subtle attempt by coach Phil
Jackson to enlist the officials' help. Describing to the media
Iverson's ball handling style, Jackson made it sound as if
Iverson tucks the ball under his arm and totes it as if he were a
running back. "Our Most Valuable Player in the league carries the
ball maybe three, four times on every play," Jackson said. "He's
capable of running at you with the basketball and then putting it
down, which makes it almost impossible to cover that little
Iverson does get away with palming on occasion, but so does
Bryant, and O'Neal sometimes parks himself in the lane for more
than three seconds without drawing a whistle. "C'mon, man, this
is the NBA," said Los Angeles forward Rick Fox after Game 1. "We
all get away with something." The referees seem to feel the same
way; Iverson wasn't called for palming in the first three games.
Fortunately for the Lakers, their on-the-court strategy for
containing Iverson was more sophisticated. Because he's lethal
when he catches the ball on the move, L.A. made every effort to
make him work from a standing start. When he had the ball in
transition they often sent a second defender, usually Horry or
Horace Grant, to double him as he came into the frontcourt,
trying to apply enough pressure to force him to put on the brakes
or, preferably, make a pass.
The scheme worked well enough to limit Iverson's fast-break
points, but Los Angeles's job wasn't nearly finished. In the
halfcourt, its approach depended on where Iverson received the
ball. When he was in the middle of the floor, near the top of the
key, the Lakers often overplayed him, trying to force him to go
left because the Sixers are largely a right-handed team, meaning
many of their plays begin with the ball moving to the right. When
Iverson was on the wing, L.A. tried to push him toward the
baseline. "If you can't keep the ball out of his hands, you have
to try to take away some of the floor once he gets it," Horry
said. "Our guards try to limit his options. He can get the jumper
anytime he wants, so all you can do is hope he's not hitting it.
If he drives, you have to hope the help comes quick enough.
There's a lot of hope involved."
The Lakers also hoped using a variety of defenders on Iverson
would tire him, but as the series progressed it looked more
likely that he would wear down his opponents. (The source of
Iverson's stamina--he played all but three minutes of the first
three games--is something of a mystery, since he disdains the
weight room and says games are the only workouts he needs.) After
22 surprisingly effective minutes of chasing Iverson in Game 1,
guard Tyronn Lue had to lean against the wall for support while
showering. "We put Derek, who's physical, on him," said L.A.
reserve guard Brian Shaw. "We put Kobe, who's taller, on him, and
we put Tyronn, who has speed, on him--and he kept going. It shows
what great shape he's in. He doesn't just run all game long, he
goes at full speed all game long."
It may seem that way, but Iverson has discovered that there's a
benefit to varying his pace. "He's been a lot smarter about using
more than only his quickness and athleticism this season," says
Sixers assistant Randy Ayers. When Philadelphia played the
Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, Iverson
watched the way Reggie Miller expertly used the picks set for
him. He asked the coaching staff for tapes of Miller to
scrutinize, and he has adopted some of the master's techniques.
Just as Iverson studied Miller, the Lakers studied
Iverson--particularly the 6-foot Lue, who was charged with the
task of imitating him during practice. "It was like I was back in
college," says Lue, who averaged 21.2 points as a senior at
Nebraska, in 1997-98. "I did crossovers, between-the-legs,
behind-the-back. I shot step-back threes, the way he does." He
was also battered by the L.A. players nearly as much as Iverson
would be. "I've never been knocked around like that," Lue says.
"Shaq bent me backward. Every time I came in the lane they sent
two and three people at me, and they were very physical."
Impersonating Iverson helped Lue when he was sent in to guard
him in Game 1. He's the only Laker with the quickness to deny
Iverson the ball on a consistent basis, and that's exactly what
he did for much of the second half, over Iverson's protestations
that Lue was holding him. Iverson, however, extricated himself
enough to score seven points in overtime to seal Philly's win.
Although that victory established that the series would not be a
walkover, the Sixers may look back on the near misses in the next
two games as the ones that cost them the championship. "We could
have had these two games with a bounce here and a bounce there,"
Iverson said on Sunday. "I think we've gotten the Lakers'
respect, but that's not enough. We're here because we want to win
The Sixers may not appreciate it yet, but they already have.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Scrambled Legs The Sixers' Matt Geiger inbounds the ball past the Lakers' Horace Grant to teammate Allen Iverson in Game 3 of the NBA Finals (page 36). [Leading Off]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER, JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AND MANNY MILLAN Armed forces In Game 1 even stiff resistance by Bryant (far left) and O'Neal couldn't thwart Iverson's forays through the lane.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER, JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AND MANNY MILLAN Obstacle course When he was able to elude the man guarding him, Iverson often ran into a second defender, such as Horry, Shaw or O'Neal.
COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA ENTERTAINMENT
Allen Iverson has carried the scoring load all year for the
76ers, averaging 19.4 more points during the regular season than
this team's No. 2 scorer, Dikembe Mutombo. Should the Sixers
rally to win the title, they would have a larger gap between top
regular-season scorers than any other champion in league history.
Here's how the Sixers stack up with the five NBA titlists with
the greatest such differentials.
SEASON, TOP SCORER AVG. NO. 2 SCORER AVG. DIFF.
Philadelphia 76ers Allen Iverson 31.1 Dikembe Mutombo 11.7* 19.4
Warriors Rick Barry 30.6 Jamaal Wilkes 14.2 16.4
Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan 32.6 Scottie Pippen 18.6 14.0
Warriors Joe Fulks 23.2 Angelo Musi 9.4 13.8
Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan 31.5 Scottie Pippen 17.8 13.7
Minneapolis Lakers George Mikan 28.3 Jim Pollard 14.8 13.5
*As a member of the 76ers only
"He's going to take 40 shots even if you guard him well," Fisher
said, "and 50 if you don't."
"He doesn't just run all game long," said Shaw, "he goes full
speed all game long."