Season by season, game by game, minute by minute and shot by shot, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson score their points and make their point, which is: They will attack the basket with as much relentlessness and passion as anyone who's ever played the game. "With those guys it's not about X's and O's," says the San Antonio Spurs' defensive ace Bruce Bowen. "[The desire to score] is what ticks inside of them.
Bryant's body clock was positively cacophonous last weekend. In a showdown against Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers last Friday at Staples Center, the Los Angeles Lakers guard scored 48 points in a 119-93 rout, overshadowing Iverson's 31. The next night, against the intracity rival Clippers, he went for 50, 40 of them coming in the second half, as the Lakers squeezed out a 112-109 win. Bryant also had the game-winner, an awkward, going-to-his-left runner in the lane that he banked high off the glass. "I remembered one of the things my father told me," Bryant said afterward, speaking of former NBA forward Joe (Jellybean) Bryant. "When you go left, you don't have to square up." His analysis, like his shot, was reminiscent of Michael Jordan, who often found a way to describe the seemingly indescribable.
Bryant's 98-point weekend propelled him past Iverson into the NBA scoring lead--at week's end Bryant was racking up 33.7 per game, Iverson 33.1. The last player to average at least 33 points per game for a season was Jordan, whose 33.6 average in 1989-90 beat out Karl Malone, who poured in 31.0. Only once since then, in 2002-03, when the Houston Rockets' Tracy McGrady averaged 32.1 points and Bryant 30.8, have two players averaged in the 30s. Furthermore, if Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James exceeds 30 a game (at week's end he was at 30.6) and Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas bumps up his average a half-point from its current 29.5, it will be the first time since '61-62 that four players reached that threshold. That season Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points while four others were over 30: Chicago's Walt Bellamy (31.6), St. Louis's Bob Pettit (31.1) and Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson and the Lakers' Jerry West (both 30.8).
In the days before his game against the Sixers, Bryant, as disingenuous off the court as he is deadly on it, predictably pooh-poohed the notion that he and Iverson were engaged in mano a mano competition. "Oh, so this is a race?" he said sarcastically when the phrase "scoring race" came up. Then, of course, he went out and played as if he was, well, in a race, going hard to the hoop, draining all seven of his three-point shots, thumping his chest with his fist after a couple of those baskets and flashing an It's-good-to-be-the-king smile as he left the court with 3:49 remaining. That Bryant could up his absurd output just 24 hours later is mind-boggling. But then, his unmatched ability to conjure such magic on demand makes him, in the minds of many league insiders, the closest thing to a Jordan heir. Take the 62 points he scored in just three quarters during a 112-90 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 20. Infuriated by a 76-74 home loss to the Houston Rockets two nights earlier, Bryant had informed his teammates at shootaround that he was "going to handle it" that night. Asked last week how many he could have scored had he not sat out the entire fourth quarter, Bryant settled on 80. Judging from that game and the two last weekend (not mention the 27 shots per game that he's heaving, nearly 10 more than his career average), Bryant knows it's a race. And he wants to win.
Iverson denies having any interest in a transcontinental scoring duel, and, being less Machiavellian than the Lakers superstar, perhaps AI--despite throwing up 26 shots per game, nearly three more than his career average--is to be believed. "Scoring is an individual goal," Iverson said two days before the L.A. game. "[The scoring title] is something I've accomplished four times ['99, '01, '02 and '05]. It's an I've-been-there-done-that type of thing. Honestly, it would be good to see if Kobe could do it one time."
The presence of James adds another intriguing layer to the scoring battle. (Is battle O.K., Kobe?) Barring a teamwide collapse, LeBron's Cavs (20-11 at week's end) will make the playoffs, while both the Lakers (17-16) and the 76ers (16-17) will have to scramble to get in. Bryant and Iverson are indeed shepherds of mediocre flocks. Against L.A., Iverson committed seven turnovers, but a few of them resulted from passes fumbled by center Samuel Dalembert, for whom the word finish refers only to the polyurethane he applies to his kitchen floor. Lakers power forward Kwame Brown, meanwhile, has manos de piedra, not to mention an aversion to perspiration. During the third period on Friday, Bryant dived full length for a loose ball and tipped it toward the former No. 1 pick. Brown, no diver he, couldn't corral it before it went out-of-bounds.
Yes, the 6'7" Bryant and the 5'11" Iverson dream of rings, but this season they might as well be chasing the rings of Saturn. "I'd trade all of [my scoring titles] for one," says Iverson in what has become his mantra (and perhaps his epitaph). Bryant has three of them, but in his mind, they bear an asterisk: Got 'em with Shaq. And Shaquille O'Neal will happily remind anyone, anytime, that he, not Bryant, was the MVP in each of those Finals.
On the night Bryant scored 62, Iverson was relaxing at home in suburban Philly, an NBA fan for the evening. "I bought my popcorn and watched like everyone else," says Iverson, who spent much of the third quarter calling up his buddies to ensure they weren't missing out on Bryant's explosion.
Bryant was pleased when informed that Iverson had seen his outburst against Dallas, in which he outscored the entire Mavericks team through three quarters. But asked if he follows Iverson's stats on a daily basis, Bryant responded, with careful enunciation, "I. Could. Sincerely. Care. Less." Kobe does admit, however, that he admires the Answer's consistency of effort. "I respect him for that, because, for me, playing hard is like a religion," Bryant says. "But that's it. He's like--what?--five-foot-whatever. We're completely different." Which is why, of course, comparisons between the two are so interesting.
Bryant's absurd weekend notwithstanding, one could argue that Iverson is having the more impressive season. He handles the ball on almost every trip down the court (and led the league through Sunday with 42.9 minutes per game) and, under new coach Maurice Cheeks, has taken on more of what Lakers coach Phil Jackson calls "think-guard" responsibilities. "Because he's so physically gifted, people overlook Allen's mental capacity," says injured Lakers swingman Aaron McKie, who played with Iverson in Philly for 71/2 seasons.
Then, too, Iverson--whose 27.4 career scoring average coming into the season tied him for third with Elgin Baylor on the alltime list behind only Jordan (30.12) and Chamberlain (30.07)--collects his plunder without posting up or getting high-percentage dunks. Whereas Bryant is in the mold of swingman scorers such as Jordan and George Gervin, Iverson is sui generis. Among the league's vertically challenged players, only Nate (Tiny) Archibald had a season that merits comparison with Iverson's; Archibald led the league in both scoring, 34.0, and assists, 11.4, in 1972-73 for the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. The Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas, as good as any little man ever, could break down a defense the way Iverson does, but he never averaged more than 22.9 points in any season. (Although Thomas would argue, perhaps persuasively, that he could have scored more if he'd needed to.)
Iverson's game is more basic than Bryant's. He beats defenders on quickness and maneuverability, slithering through spaces like a circus contortionist. Furthermore, he can pull up and get off a decent shot from anywhere. He is an accurate shooter when going left or right, though he tends to drift when moving to his left. (But then, as Jellybean says, you don't have to be squared up when going left.) Iverson confounds perimeter defenses because he is so quick on pick-and-rolls and because he doesn't always use them. "It's hard to come up with a game plan to beat Allen when he just comes at you," says New Orleans Hornets forward Rasual Butler. "How do you combat quickness?"
Then, too, for all his problems with authority figures Iverson has the respect of the most important ones on the court--the referees. "He will flail to get calls," says Phoenix Suns assistant coach Phil Weber, "and he usually gets them." At week's end Iverson had shot more free throws per game (11.3) than any player.
On the other hand, it could be argued that Bryant's scoring is more impressive because he is not the primary ball-handler. He, too, is a smart player. Bryant's most impressive season may have been 2002-03, when he averaged 30 points even though O'Neal was on his team. Asked how he did it, Bryant tapped his index finger against his head. "I thought the game," he says. "I spent hours looking at film, seeing where my chances would best come in the offense."
Bryant's arsenal is more varied than that of Iverson. Catalog his shots from last weekend's games, and you see a little bit of everything: jumpers from either wing and the top of the key, runners down the gut, turnarounds, fadeaways, up-and-under scoops and one confounding banker that will haunt the Clippers for weeks. Also, while the Lakers run some pick-and-rolls for Bryant, he gets most of his points within the triangle, which often calls for him to feint and pivot before releasing a shot. "He has some of the best footwork in the league from that perimeter position," says Butler.
True, Jackson's offense allows Bryant to consistently get the ball in what Sixers assistant coach John Kuester calls "the scoring area." But when Bryant is on, the scoring area encompasses the North American continent. Which brings us to the killer threes. Late in the fourth quarter of Friday's game Bryant calmly dribbled downcourt, pulled up from 29 feet and--wham!--drilled a three-pointer. Twenty-five seconds later he did it again, this time from 26 feet. "I knew I was going to shoot threes from the moment I got it at the other end," said Bryant. "The guy defending me has to keep retreating because he doesn't want anyone to get behind him. Everything slows down in that situation. I take my time. The basket looks big."
Yes, you can chill a bottle of beer in this man's blood. Although Iverson does not exactly come across as warm and cuddly, he is clearly the warmer of the two--and certainly the more popular. His dogged work ethic and little-guy-takes-on-the-world ethos has always played well in blue-collar Philadelphia. And while Iverson was cheered in L.A.--the same reception he receives in every arena--Philly expat Bryant can count on getting booed whenever he comes to Tastykake Town. (Bryant was even booed Saturday night at Staples, where the Clippers were technically the home team.) Around the NBA, AI is universally respected by execs, coaches and fellow competitors for his talent, heart and determination to be a positive force on his team. He was one of the few stand-up U.S. players during the disappointing bronze-medal run at the '04 Olympics, and last week reaffirmed his wish to play in the '08 Games. Bryant's air of hauteur and his predilection for being rough on teammates earns him widespread enmity in the league. His teammates don't love him either, notably Lamar Odom, with whom he had a dustup after a Dec. 26 loss in Washington. But following Saturday's game even Odom said, "It's like God put Kobe here for us to watch him play basketball."
Neither player is without weakness. Iverson, third in the league in steals, is first in reckless gambles. He had a splendidly economical first half against the Lakers, scoring 25 points on just 11 shots, but the man he was guarding, Smush Parker, got a career-high 21 points over those same 24 minutes. Bryant's fatal flaw is hubris. He believes he can make any shot at any time, and last weekend will only reinforce his confidence. "Allen will take the shots he wants to take," says Hornets guard Speedy Claxton, "but Kobe will bail [a defender] out and take some difficult ones." Adds one Western Conference assistant coach, "Kobe's ego gets him to do a lot of dumb things."
All scorers do dumb things, take outrageous shots and display preposterous self-confidence. The larger point about Bryant and Iverson is this: Their wills are indomitable, their obsessions with making a statement on every possession unwavering. "Both of them will carve your heart out," says Orlando Magic vice president Pat Williams, "and leave it beating on the sidewalk." It'll be fascinating to see, at season's end, which player had the sharper knife.
For a photo gallery of the season's biggest scoring explosions go to SI.com/photos.
SHOT by SHOT
LAST FRIDAY NIGHT Kobe Bryant played the starring role in his Staples showdown with Allen Iverson, scoring 48 points to AI's 31. SI was there to record all 51 shots, hits and misses alike.
KOBE 0 for 1 • 10:57 1ST
AI 0 for 1 • 10:17 1ST
AI 1 for 2 • 10:00 1ST
KOBE 1 for 2 • 8:12 1ST
KOBE 2 for 3 • 7:48 1ST
KOBE 2 for 4 • 6:56 1ST
AI 2 for 3 • 6:48 1ST
AI 3 for 4 • 6:24 1ST
KOBE 2 for 5 • 5:18 1ST
AI 4 for 5 • 5:11 1ST
KOBE 3 for 6 • 3:17 1ST
KOBE 3 for 7 • 2:49 1ST
KOBE 4 for 8 • 2:39 1ST
KOBE 5 for 9 • 2:17 1ST
AI 5 for 6 • 1:55 1ST
KOBE 6 for 10 • 0:36 1ST
KOBE 7 for 11 • 11:45 2ND
KOBE 7 for 12 • 10:26 2ND
KOBE 8 for 13 • 9:52 2ND
KOBE 8 for 14 • 9:00 2ND
AI 6 for 7 • 8:26 2ND
AI 7 for 8 • 7:05 2ND
AI 8 for 9 • 6:47 2ND
KOBE 8 for 15 • 5:35 2ND
AI 8 for 10 • 4:24 2ND
KOBE 8 for 16 • 1:52 2ND
AI 9 for 11 • 1:19 2ND
KOBE 9 for 17 • 0:32 2ND
KOBE 10 for 18 • 0:04 2ND
KOBE 10 for 19 • 10:19 3RD
AI 9 for 12 • 9:37 3RD
AI 9 for 13 • 9:07 3RD
KOBE 11 for 20 • 8:33 3RD
KOBE 11 for 21 • 7:54 3RD
AI 9 for 14 • 7:43 3RD
KOBE 12 for 22 • 5:52 3RD
AI 9 for 15 • 4:31 3RD
KOBE 13 for 23 • 3:28 3RD
AI 10 for 16 • 3:15 3RD
KOBE 14 for 24 • 3:01 3RD
KOBE 15 for 25 • 2:06 3RD
KOBE 16 for 26 • 1:43 3RD
KOBE 17 for 27 • 0:41 3RD
AI 10 for 17 • 0:28 3RD
AI 10 for 18 • 8:29 4TH
AI 10 for 19 • 8:02 4TH
AI 11 for 20 • 6:28 4TH
AI 11 for 21 • 5:48 4TH
AI 11 for 22 • 5:01 4TH
KOBE 18 for 28 • 4:30 4TH
KOBE 19 for 29 • 4:05 4TH
"Honestly, it would be good to see if Kobe could do it one time," Iverson says of winning the scoring title.
After Saturday's game, even Odom said, "It's like God put Kobe here for us to watch him play."
"Both of them will carve your heart out," says Pat Williams of Bryant and Iverson, "and leave it beating on the sidewalk."
Photographs by John W. McDonough,Peter Read Miller, Robert Beck
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS OUT Bryant (8) was the clear winner in the Staples showdown, but Iverson may be having the better season.
D. CLARKE EVANS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
THREE AT LAST With James jumping into the race for the scoring title, the league could have a trio of 30-point scorers for the first time since '81-82.