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Star Burst The 76ers are torrid thanks to Allen Iverson, whose all-around play has vaulted him into contention in the crowded MVP race

For the past few months NBA observers have been debating what is
perhaps the most intriguing and wide-open MVP race in history.
Now it has gotten even more intriguing and wide open with the
renaissance of the Philadelphia 76ers, led by--who else?--Allen

In the three weeks since the All-Star break, the Sixers have won
14 of 16 games and vaulted from seventh to third place in the
Eastern Conference; Iverson has been, as usual, the team's top
offensive threat. But beyond his 27.6 points per game in that
stretch, he has become a more effective all-around player. He has
increased his league-leading steals average to 2.68. His
playmaking, usually an afterthought, has been economical and
productive. "He's putting people in position with simple passes,"
says backcourt partner Eric Snow. "His overall game has gotten
better, and it's taken the focus off how many shots he's taken
and how many points he's scored." Snow adds that Iverson has
taken more of a leadership role: "He's more vocal. He's telling
guys how important situations are, how important games are. In
the past he's left that up to me."

Iverson, the 2000--01 MVP, has always been a little man who does
big things; now he's doing the little things as well. Coach Larry
Brown points to last Friday night's 90--79 win over the Portland
Trail Blazers: Though Iverson scored only two points in the
fourth quarter, he was the best player on the floor, distributing
the ball in place of the injured Snow, who had suffered a cut on
his hand. "He's in a good frame of mind these days," says Brown.
"He's proud of the way he's played and proud of the way the team
has picked up and gotten better."

The key to Iverson's MVP candidacy is that he's peaking now. The
play of Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, who a month ago
was a stronger contender than Iverson, has leveled off (albeit at
a very high level). Another top candidate, Kobe Bryant, was
sensational in February, but as Shaquille O'Neal returns to
health, he will carry more of the load for the Los Angeles
Lakers. And just as Iverson's March run has propelled Philly to
within a half game of the New Jersey Nets in the Atlantic
Division, so too has it driven him past MVP aspirant and
league-leading scorer Tracy McGrady, whose Orlando Magic is
struggling to hold on to a playoff spot.

Iverson still has two huge mountains to climb over: Kevin Garnett
and Tim Duncan. Garnett cast his vote for Bryant last week, then
paused to think. "A.I.'s in there, too," he said. "What that
little man does every night...." Garnett shook his head in
wonder. "I mean, they call him 6 feet, but there's no way he's
that big. He throws his body in there, plays hard every minute. I
love watching him. Love it. He's gotta be considered." Consider
him considered. --J.M.