Sixers follow heroic lead set by Iverson
This article was originally published in the Daily News on May 29, 2001.
Years from now, when the legend of Allen Iverson is complete, when his career with the 76ers and the NBA is complete and all of his numbers are in the book, this will be one to remember and cherish.
This will be the night he swallowed blood for the final 2 minutes but refused to swallow even the concept of a defeat. This will be the night he came back from a severe bruise of the left sacroiliac joint, an injury described as similar to being struck on a bone with a hammer.
This will be the night he absorbed a flying elbow from Milwaukee's Ray Allen that left him with a twisted tooth and spitting up blood.
This will be the night, the historians will say, Iverson got knocked woozy but somehow located the strength and grit to shake it all off and help the Sixers pin an improbable, 89-83 loss on the Bucks, evening their best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals series at 2-2 and setting the stage for tomorrow night's Game 5 in the First Union Center.
The tong war to reach the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a best-of-three series. Game 6 will be Friday night in Milwaukee. A projected Game 7 would be Sunday in Philadelphia.
"We're getting into a football kind of game,'' Bucks coach George Karl said through tight lips. "But they did what they had to do. ''
What Iverson had to do last night seemed even beyond his incredible ability to withstand blows. He crumpled to the floor of the Bradley Center court with 2 minutes, 5 seconds remaining. He had tried to steal the ball from Allen, flicking it. He tried again, flicking it again. The second time, Allen's left elbow caught him in the mouth.
"The worst thing about it was, there was no call [by the referees],'' Sixers center Dikembe Mutombo said. "The good thing about it was, the commissioner [David Stern] was here and Stu Jackson, the league's vice president of operations, was here and he will get a chance to examine all of the calls.
"I work for the 76ers, not for the league, so it is not for me to make a judgment. I just couldn't believe it came from Ray Allen, a classy guy. I never thought he could be that dirty. Ray Allen? Him? That's my boy. ''
Mutombo declined to say whether he believed Allen should be fined.
"I think the league will think about it,'' he said.
The teams have even more to think about. The Sixers left with backup point guard Eric Snow hobbling on crutches, his right foot - jammed again - encased in a protective boot.
But they also left knowing Iverson, who had missed Game 3 because of the problem with his sacroiliac joint, had generated 28 points and eight assists, playing 47 of a possible 48 minutes. They left knowing Mutombo had been a force inside with 17 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks in 46 minutes, that Tyrone Hill had awakened to contribute 14 points and that Aaron McKie had scored all 11 of his points in the second half and played ferocious defense against Allen (14 points on 5-for-14 shooting).
Karl left the arena knowing the Bucks, in his words, had had "too many soft possessions,'' that forward Glenn Robinson had been ejected on a second technical foul with 58.8 seconds remaining, that the Sixers had been the aggressors.
"I didn't think the refs were going to let me come back out because I kept spitting out so much blood,'' Iverson said. "My teammates were telling me I had to get back on the floor. I was trying to stop spitting blood, but it wouldn't stop. I didn't want them to try and get me out, so I kept my mouth closed, just swallowed the blood when it filled up. ''
He said he didn't think Allen's elbow was intentional.
"I hope not,'' he said.
Said Allen: "I'm pretty sure he thinks I did it intentionally. I heard him say to somebody he's going to get me back. I'll beware of that. ''
The Sixers have seen Iverson do seemingly impossible things over and over, and still, each time somehow seems like the first time.
"He basically just about got his teeth knocked out and was still out there,'' backup center Todd MacCulloch said. "You'd have to poke both his eyes out and he'd probably still be wandering around out there trying to play defense. With him, there are no TKOs, no KOs. He keeps getting up. Winning, though, accelerates healing. ''
That, and the nature of the beast. "Don't let a little blood scare you,'' McKie said. "It's just a tooth. They didn't pull his heart out in the middle of the floor. He's OK. It's basketball. We're aggressive in our nature. Things happen sometimes. Guys reach, sometimes throw elbows out. They're not intentionally trying to hurt anyone. ''
This was a game in which the Sixers survived a 14-0 run by the Bucks in the second quarter, in which the Sixers missed their last nine shots of the first half, in which Iverson missed his last 10 in the first half. This was also a game in which the Sixers allowed the Bucks only four points from the 8:43 mark of the fourth quarter to 20.8 seconds remaining.
"There was a lot of real physical play late in the game,'' Sixers coach Larry Brown said. "Guys were flying all over the court; we're the same way as them. . .These kids have all stepped up with adversity. That's the way we've played all year. ''
Injuries? A twisted tooth? Flying elbows? None of that was on Iverson's mind as he headed for the team bus.
"My heart feels good right now,'' Iverson said. "That's important.''