Every now and then extraordinary things happen in ordinary time. Such was the case on June 6th 2001 when Allen Iverson arrived in L.A. to play the defending champion Lakers who were 11-0 in the playoffs. It was supposed to be a NBA Finals rout.
The Lakers incentivized dominance. Teams feared the Shaq-Kobe duo, the league’s two best players, and the Lakers took advantage of their opponents insecurity, winning playoff games by a margin of 15.4 points.
In game three of the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers beat the Spurs by 39 points. Kobe and Shaq took 50 of the team’s 92 shots and made 60% of them. Bryant added 9 rebounds, 8 assists and 1 steal for a 36 point stat line. O’Neal had 35 points and 17 rebounds. In the closeout game, it was more of the same.
Bryant/O’Neal took 39 shots, making 55% of them. Kobe had 24 points and 11 assists. Shaq had 26 points and 10 rebounds. They won by 29 points, headed to their second consecutive NBA Finals and with ten days off, and the way they slashed and burned through the competition, the NBA Finals wasn’t going to be close.
No one had ever gone undefeated in the playoffs but this Lakers team had everyone thinking they were going to make history. They had won 19 games in a row. They hadn’t lost since April 1st.
In Philadelphia, it was a romantic story. A team of average players attached themselves to the toughest, most dynamic combo guard the NBA had ever seen.
It was Allen Iverson’s greatest year in 2000-01; he was the MVP. 31.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2.5 steals. But the holy game of Iverson had nothing to do with stats. His will on the court and his relentless attack and his warrior-grit style where no one could prevent Iverson from getting where he wanted was what separated him from the whole of the NBA. He was electric and magnetic, he played bigger than his size. He was the best player on a team with Theo Ratliff, Dikembe Mutumbo and Aaron McKie.
In the playoffs, the 76ers beat a Pacers team that went to the NBA Finals the year before. Reggie Miller was near the end. In their three wins, Iverson averaged close to 37 points. Next up: Vince Carter.
The 76ers beat the Raptors in 7 games. Toronto still won’t forgive Carter for going to his college graduation ceremony before game 7. Iverson only had 21 points in that game but Aaron McKie had 22 points. Carter only made 33% of his shots in a one point loss.
The last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals against Milwaukee should have prepared everyone for what Iverson was going to do in the NBA Finals. In game 7, Iverson had 44 points. Mutombo had 23 points and 19 rebounds, too much for Bucks stars Ray Allen and Sam Cassell
It set the stage. The league MVP versus the champions.
In true Iverson fashion, he was a volume shooter, taking 13 shots in the first quarter, making six, shooting 46% for 12 points. The 76ers trailed by one, 22-23. Shaq had 10 points in the quarter. Bryant, was particularly off, missing the three shots he took, his offense swallowed up trying to stop Iverson and he used his energy, blocking Iverson twice.
Iverson was the show, as magnetic as always, and on the big stage he delivered because he had to. He was all the 76ers had. He continued taking shots from all over the court. He missed a lot, he made a lot. At halftime he had 30 points. His 18 points in the second quarter pushed the 76ers to a six point halftime lead, a stunning shock to everyone who had witnessed the Lakers dominance of the past few months.
Could they actually lose to the 76ers?
Phil Jackson made a coaching adjustment late in the third by inserting rarely used Tyronn Lue and putting him on Iverson. In practice, Lue imitated Iverson, the only one on the Lakers with Iverson’s size and speed but unfortunately for Lue, he didn’t have Iverson’s shooting talent. But Lue could defend. Once he was inserted, Iverson found himself with a shadow.
Philly had a two point lead to start the 4th. Both teams were fatigued. Kobe Bryant drained a 18 footer with three minutes left to tie the game. Shaq followed with a Kobe assist he turned into a dunk. Eric Snow tied it again and the game headed to overtime. Iverson hadn’t scored in nine minutes.
He made up for it in overtime. With the 76ers trailing by one, Iverson made a three to give the Sixers the lead. More Iverson. He hit a 16 footer after a Rick Fox turnover and then a 17 footer over Tyronn Lue that has been replayed a thousand times because it’s an Iverson iconic videographic moment. He hits a step back, climbs over a helpless Lue who had fallen down and then Iverson gives Lue the you-can’t-guard-me-stare. Ballgame. Upset.
The team that was supposed to get run over did the running over. The 76ers overcame Shaq’s 40 and 20 rebound performance and beat the Lakers by 6 points and took a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals. Now the Sixers had home court advantage over the NBA champions. Naturally, they were confident about their chances going forward.
“You get down five in the Finals against the Lakers and everyone’s got their broom out. That drives us. Anybody that bet on it, some broke people out there. Some people got their feelings hurt but I’m glad nobody bet their life on it because they definitely would be dead right now.”
The 76ers wouldn’t win another game.
photo via llananba