Mutombo makes all the difference

This article was originally published in the Inquirer on March 8, 2001.

Like a regal giraffe, Dikembe Mutombo unfolded himself along the baseline, feinted to his left, wheeled to his right, and lobbed the ball, catapult style, through the netting.

The New Jersey Nets looked at each other and shrugged. There are some things for which there is neither defense nor antidote. Hysterical weather forecasts and hook shots by exceedingly tall men are foremost among those.

The Great Retriever is every millimeter of 7-foot-2, and possesses the wingspan of a 747 besides. So, if he is going to shoot the hook, well then, there is no way to stop it other than with a company of fire trucks with their telescopic ladders.

And it is the Sixers' stated purpose that their new pivot man shoot the hook. Frequently. It is what they spent most of their four off-days working on, with none other than coach Larry Brown repeatedly feeding Mutombo the ball in practice.

"They want me to take some of the scoring pressure off the little man," Mutombo said in that rich baritone.

He alluded, of course, to Allen Iverson, the electric elf. The Sixers still search for someone to ride shotgun for Iverson, someone to score with some semblance of consistency. They have gone through a long audition list - Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes, Toni Kukoc - with neither satisfaction nor success.

Last night was the first experiment with Mutombo in that role. The results were mixed.

The Sixers won, and needed almost the whole game to catch a woebegone opponent. They are moving relentlessly, methodically, to the No. 1 seed and there is no longer anyone doubting their legitimacy, but the basic way of life for them didn't change appreciably.

They got 102 points and needed almost all of them. Iverson scored 38 and they needed every one of those. It is very likely going to be that way all through the NBA playoffs.

Mutombo, with the help of his educated, steel-tipped elbows, registered another double-double, but despite all the talk about involving him, the offense wasn't exactly funneled through him. He took only eight shots.

The player who sparkled was Tyrone Hill, the honest laborer who kept rooting the ball loose while the Nets concentrated on keeping Mutombo at bay on the boards. It may turn out that it is Hill rather than Iverson who profits most from Mutombo.

The irony about the acquisition of The Great Retriever is that it was almost universally applauded by the rest of the league but barbecued in Philadelphia. Part of that is due to the popularity of Theo Ratliff.

But, it says here, getting Mutombo was the correct move. When is it ever wrong to land the best rebounder in the league? Especially when you already have the best scorer. Especially when you already have the best record in the league.

And without Mutombo, the Sixers would have been severely overmatched against any of the Western teams they are apt to meet in the finals.

Mutombo has produced 82 points and 84 rebounds in his six games as a Sixer. Their record is 4-2. The two losses were certainly not his fault and had nothing at all to do with him or the Sixers, and everything to do with the opponent. One loss was on a three-point shot at the end, the other due to a career night (42 points) by Milwaukee's Ray Allen.

Those were games the Sixers would have lost with a healthy Ratliff.

Last night, Mutombo's presence inside reduced the Nets to perimeter jump shooters. They made enough of those shots to make it a game, but jump shooters don't win consistently because the penetrating teams always get to shoot free throws. Last night, the Sixers made 10 more free throws than the Nets and won by eight. Do the math.

The point is, Mutombo has effects on the game not measurable in a box score - for example, noses bloodied and/or broken, and the attendant intimidation that the crimson geysers engender.

At this point last season, the Sixers were 34-27. Now they are a robust 45-16, an improvement of 11 each in wins and losses. If they finish only 15-6, they would get to 60 wins and, very probably, home court all the way through to the finals, and maybe there as well.

"This is the first time in my career I have a chance at it all," Mutombo said.

His smile said he was immensely grateful. His knees tell him just how long it has been, and how much longer he may have.

"I don't have to change my game, or change anything here," he said. "All I have to do is clean up. "

The Nets do not exactly have an armada in the middle. The two players they sent at Mutombo were second-year man Evan Eschmeyer and forward-masquerading-as-center Aaron Williams.

Mutombo introduced each to his bayonet elbows. And when the Sixers were making their move to put the Nets away, here came Mutombo clanking his way across the middle, shoveling in a little bank shot, getting fouled, and making the free throw.

Sometimes it's not how much offense, but when it is delivered.