This article was originally published in the Daily News on March 12, 2001.
The 76ers clinched when they could have clutched.
Allen Iverson, as indestructible as he might seem, was out the second half with a bruised left hip.
Aaron McKie was out the last eight minutes, nine seconds with a right corneal abrasion.
The Boston Celtics, revitalized under interim coach Jim O'Brien, were playing for their playoff lives.
The FleetCenter, in a clear tribute to the popularity of Iverson, was sold out for just the third time all season.
Not to worry. When the Sixers needed it the most, Dikembe Mutombo set an arena record with 22 rebounds, George Lynch and Tyrone Hill did an admirable job chasing Celtics snipers Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, Eric Snow handed out 10 assists, and all five starters scored in double figures in a 97-91 victory yesterday that nailed down a playoff berth for the third season in succession.
"Our goals are to have the best record in the East, the best record in the league and to win the championship,'' Snow said. "Obviously, this comes with all of that. You have to do this to get to the others. ''
They climbed to 47-16 with a level of grit and determination that has become their trademark. That very trademark ignited the team when Iverson made a headlong, sliding dive across the floor in front of the Sixers' bench. Even though he failed to save the ball from rolling out of bounds, the wakeup call to his teammates was apparent.
"The whole tone was set,'' Sixers coach Larry Brown said. "We were down 7-0 and Allen made some incredible hustle plays. That was a key. After that, I felt kind of good. ''
At the same time, that was the play on which Iverson - who has been playing for weeks with two bruised hips - aggravated the left one, forcing him to play a season-low 15 minutes. But instead of glancing over their collective shoulders at their fallen star, the Sixers showed the offensive aggressiveness they had to have. Snow put up 19 points, Lynch and Mutombo had 18 each, Hill 12 and McKie nine. Jumaine Jones, despite going scoreless in 17 minutes, contributed seven rebounds to an imposing 48-29 advantage off the glass.
"When [Iverson] went down, that's something you've got to deal with,'' Brown said. "His effort early was incredible. I thought it made a statement to our team.
"I don't know if I've ever been in [the playoffs] this early, unless it was when I was at Kansas. It's a pretty neat thing, three years in a row. This team has made a lot of progress each year. Now, the thing is we've got to try and get better each game. ''
They must be doing something right; they're 24-7 on the road, which is not only the best in the league but represents more total victories than eight teams in the league.
"All the work we did at training camp, all the cohesiveness we developed paid off,'' Hill said. "But it's been that way with us all season. It's not a surprise. You should be used to it. When somebody goes down, you shouldn't say, 'Uh-oh. ' The way the game was going, we were in a good rhythm. ''
Must have been. The Sixers won for the 11th time in 13 games, for the 17th time in 20 games on the road, for the 32nd time in 35 games when they have shot 45 percent or better, for the 26th time in 29 games vs. sub-.500 opponents.
It was, all at the same time, a moment to rejoice, to wonder and to (playfully, we think) grumble about the number of blocks credited to the 7-2 Mutombo, who missed the distinction of what would have been a dubious triple-double by two turnovers.
The Celtics' stat crew gave Mutombo four blocks, leaving Brown to say, "I'm confused. He had four at halftime [actually three] and had four for the game. I remember him affecting a lot more shots than that. ''
Said Mutombo: "I blocked three more, six more. I'm going to protest, like they did in Florida, do a recount. ''
Brown enjoyed the scene as best he could, knowing that both Iverson and McKie were scheduled to have additional medical examinations today in Chicago. Sixers publicist Karen Frascona said both players would, at least for the time being, be listed as questionable for Wednesday night's game against the Bulls. Neither was expected to practice at Moody Bible Center, although Brown said he hoped to get a long look at injured backup center Matt Geiger.
Iverson said he did not know the extent of his injury, but that he had a deep appreciation for clinching a postseason berth.
"It means everything to us,'' he said. "At least we don't have to worry about that anymore. ''
Iverson had attempted to resume playing in the first half, but said the hip "stiffened up'' and that he "just couldn't run. ''
McKie, inadvertently poked in the eye by the Celtics' Vitaly Potapenko, spent the final stages of the game using an ice pack.
McKie said reaching the playoffs "was one of the accomplishments we set out to do. We have bigger goals in mind; we'll take a couple days to enjoy this, then think about clinching the East, clinching homecourt throughout the playoffs.
"Everybody always says what we can and can't do, but every time something happens other guys step up. Everybody played within themselves, didn't try and do things they don't always do. When these things happen, we come together even more. ''
That was apparent in the defensive work done away from the basket by Lynch and Hill, switching a lot as they attempted to at least contain Pierce (24 points) and Walker (21, just three in the fourth quarter, eight turnovers). Pierce and Walker have generated a huge percentage of the Celtics' offense in the 29 games since O'Brien succeeded Rick Pitino.
"The way those guys score, we had to play more individual one-on-one,'' Hill said. "I'm used to guarding guys in the post, but whatever coach wants this young man to do, I try and do. Please be sure to say 'young man. ' ''
Said Lynch: "When it really gets tough, Allen has a great supporting cast. Everyone's a threat. But clinching a playoff spot is just another thing. We're trying to get better, learn to play with Mutombo. Now we have to figure out how to get to the finals.''