This article was originally published in the Inquirer on May 23, 2001.
The day before, he could barely walk. Sitting was an arduous task. But when it was time to show up and carry the burden only stars embrace, Allen Iverson responded.
The Milwaukee Bucks did not.
Shoving aside pain and rust stemming from a severe tailbone injury, Iverson came through when the 76ers needed him most last night, drilling a big three-point shot with 1 minute, 10 seconds remaining in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Iverson's three, over Ray Allen, gave the 76ers a seven-point cushion en route to a 93-85 win over the Bucks in front of a wildly appreciative sellout crowd at the First Union Center.
The victory marked the first time in this postseason that the Sixers have protected home-court advantage by winning Game 1. They will host Game 2 of the best-of-seven series tomorrow night.
If Iverson can get some rest, if his quickness and agility can help him improve on a dismal 13-for-35 shooting effort last night, the Bucks could be on shaky ground by the weekend.
Iverson struggled miserably early last night, missing all nine of his shots in the first quarter, but the Sixers still pulled off a victory. Allen sparked Milwaukee with 31 points, and still the Sixers won. Coach Larry Brown had Jumaine Jones and Aaron McKie sharing the difficult task of guarding the Bucks' Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. And still the Sixers won.
"I was just out there hurting," Iverson said, alluding to his tailbone injury. "[Brown] asked me before the game how did my [rear end] feel, and I told him it was worse than it was [during the regular season] when I missed five games. Then I fell on it at the end of the first quarter, which bothered me. But I don't think that really had anything to do with some of the shots I missed.
"I missed a lot of easy shots inside that I can make with my eyes closed. Once I missed a couple of layups, then I started missing jumpers, and I kind of got frustrated a little bit when I started missing the easy shots. But that's what the playoffs are all about. The game was ugly, but the result was pretty. "
The Sixers shot 40.4 percent for the game, while Milwaukee shot 39.2 percent. The Sixers didn't get much offensively from starting forwards Jones (eight points) or Tyrone Hill (five points, 12 rebounds). But the team didn't need to do much. The Bucks were playing right into the Sixers' hands.
"Early in the first half, our shots were pretty good, but they were quick," Bucks coach George Karl said. "Our shot selection broke down a little bit and brought some frustration to the game, which is a little bit a part of our unpredictable personality. In the second half, I thought we did, basically, what we're capable of doing, but the hole was too big. We probably didn't play a good enough basketball game to win on the road in a playoff situation. "
Statistics tell the story.
Robinson, the team's second-leading scorer throughout the playoffs, shot just 7 for 22 from the field, finishing with 15 points. Centers Scott Williams and Ervin Johnson (15 rebounds) scored just 10 points combined. Neither was able to keep 7-foot-2 center Dikembe Mutombo off the boards; he registered 15 points and 18 rebounds, and he came up with three of his four blocks in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Milwaukee shot just 5 of 18 from the field, committed six turnovers, let the Sixers score on 15 of 23 shots, and were outrebounded by 16-4. The Sixers ended the half on a 10-0 run, going up by 51-35.
Battered and shaken, the Bucks kept looking at the clock, as if begging for intermission to arrive.
"I thought we got into a situation where we missed easy shots, and we let that bother us and get us down," said Allen, who hit 12 of 22 shots. "When you are on the road and you have the crowd against you, it felt like the momentum shifted halfway in the second quarter. We were forcing shots. "
Eventually, the Bucks calmed down. Then they struck.
After a three by Iverson put the Bucks down by 59-43 with 8:04 left in the third, the team the Sixers had spent the previous 48 hours worrying about finally showed up.
Johnson drilled a short jumper. Robinson followed with a three. Then, a dunk, a jumper and a three by Allen culminated a 12-0 run, pulling Milwaukee within 59-55 with 4:41 left in the third.
With 1:59 remaining in the game, the margin was slimmer. By then, Robinson was hitting a few jump shots. Allen was being himself. Sam Cassell - a closer if there ever was one - had leaped into Hill, drawing a foul, then hitting three free throws that pulled the Bucks within 85-83.
But Iverson responded by hitting two free throws. A miss by the Sixers on an ensuing possession was negated because Mutombo grabbed the rebound, found Iverson, then watched as the league's MVP drilled a three over the outstretched arms of Allen. It virtually secured victory.
Talk about Iverson's health? Gone. Questions about his ability to perform? Gone. Delusions about whether he'd be ready for Game 2 on Thursday night?
"I don't really give a damn about [Iverson's] physical status," Karl said afterward. "I hope he's banged up and continues to be banged up. Part of playoff basketball is being hurt. We have a lot of injuries and a lot of guys banged up, but we don't talk about it because it's not important. "
That's because Karl is coaching the Bucks. Perhaps he would think otherwise if he were coaching the Sixers.