Pity the poor Raptors
This article was originally published in the Daily News on May 17, 2001.
IN HINDSIGHT, the Toronto Raptors never truly had a chance - not in that house, not under those circumstances.
From the moment before tip-off last night when the First Union Center exploded as NBA commissioner David Stern presented Allen Iverson with the league's Most Valuable Player trophy, a tidal wave of energy began to surge and swell.
And by the time the poor Raptors had been battered and broken to the tune of a 121-88 washout, it was clear they had been little more than helpless grains of sand caught in an undeniable maelstrom disguised as the 76ers.
Fueled by 20,939 bolts of lightning, the Sixers were more than a basketball team. The Sixers became a force of nature and Toronto was the futile straw house trying to stand against them.
The MVP presentation had the house rocking. The Sixers' 11-0 start got it rolling. And by the time Toronto knew what was going on, it trailed by 21 points and essentially was trying to push a 1,000-pound boulder up Mount Everest.
"This was truly high voltagetonight,'' Sixers president Pat Croce said. "I thought our first [home playoff game against the Orlando Magic] in 1999 was the best this house has ever been.
Tonight beat that.
"The fans had their say at the MVP presentation and then they got it handed back to them with the way we started. That was so electrifying.
"Honestly, I don't think [the Raptors] had a chance tonight, not the way this evening started. There was something special. The stars were aligned - especially our superstar. ''
That would be Iverson, who accepted his MVP award and then set the tone for the entire night by issuing a challenge to his adoring fans.
"Every time I come in, I here my favorite song,'' Iverson told the crowd just before tipoff. "That's you fans cheering. So play my song, and let's get this party jumping. ''
This party didn't lack any of the trimmings.
Iverson scored 52 points and set a Sixer playoff record with eight three-pointers. Coupled with the 54 he scored in Game 2, The Answer joined Michael
Jordan as the only NBA players to score 50 points twice in a playoff series.
There was Jumaine Jones making his first career start and increasing the voltage in the arena by hitting his first two shots - an all-cotton three-pointer and a sweet turnaround jumper.
The Sixers have gotten off to big starts before, but this was different. This just kept building - 33-12 after a quarter, 62-40 at the half, 93-67 after three - all the way to a stunning, 33-point victory.
And the crowd just kept getting louder and louder until it finally swallowed the Raptors in a crescendo of emotion.
"I've never heard this crowd any better or more responsive,'' said Sixers coach Larry Brown, "and they've been phenomenal since I've been here. Our players really fed off that, and I think it affected Toronto, to be honest. ''
The Raptors actually seemed overwhelmed by the level of emotion swirling around them. In the biggest game of the year, they played as if they were as extinct as their namesake.
"[The Sixers] set the tone in the first 3 minutes of the game, and we didn't show up,'' Toronto coach Lenny Wilkens lamented. "You can't allow a team to do that to you. We turned the ball over three or four times right away and that's uncharacteristic of us.
"It was like we didn't show up. When you set a tone and the other team gets off like that, their confidence is sky-high. Then, you're trying everything you can to stop it. But they weren't going to be denied tonight. ''
It was just the latest gut-check response in a season highlighted by gut-check responses.
With starting forward George Lynch out with a broken left foot and center Matt Geiger not suited up, the Sixers were down two players.
So naturally they tied their season high with 121 points, dominated the Raptors and positioned themselves to close out this series with a victory in Game 6 tomorrow night at the Air Canada Centre.
"I'm in awe of these guys all the time,'' Brown said. "I looked in the locker room before the game and we've got 10 guys in uniform.
"You've got Rodney Buford, who was in Europe at the beginning of the year. Raja Bell was in Yakima. Kevin Ollie got cut by the New Jersey Nets. Todd MacCulloch was Matt Geiger's backup. Eric Snow is playing on one leg. Then Aaron McKie hurts his shoulder early in the game. It just blows my mind that we can win games like this. This team plays with a lot of emotion. That's the only way we can play. ''
There was no shortage of emotion in the First Union Center, and the Sixers greedily fueled themselves on it.
"The crowd was excellent,'' Snow said. "We got that energy from them before the game started and it just carried over throughout the game.
"But now it's about winning the next game. Scoring 121 points tonight and playing well in front of the home crowd isn't going to win the game for us on Friday. We have to regroup
because I'm sure there are things we didn't do well. There are a lot of things we can correct going into Friday.''