Thursday, January 11, 2007

AI in (Powder) Blue

I watched my first Nuggets game since Allen Iverson, the greatest basketball player in history, got traded from Philly. It was so...weird. There's no other word for it. Following him for so long, as a Sixer, in that arena, in that city, and now it's all changed. Don't get me wrong; I think it's great he got out of there, even if he didn't end up where I (along with every other NBA fan) wanted him - in Minnesota, where him and KG would have formed the greatest 1-2 punch since Michael and Scottie. The atmosphere, the team, the fans, everything in Philly had gotten to the point where it was best for all parties for him to just leave. But just because it was good for him to leave doesn't mean it's not strange to see him in another uniform. Like Chris Webber said, Allen Iverson is Philly.

Anyways, AI played a great game, shot 15-25, and his team still lost because they put up bad shots in the 3rd and 4th quarters when the Spurs made their run. No biggie. One loss here or there right now is not going to hurt them. But when Melo gets back, they better figure out things quickly. By figuring out, I mean:
1. Denver's down by one, 12 seconds to go, who does Karl draw up the play for?
2. Who's going to take fewer shots than they're used to: AI, Melo, J.R. Smith, or Earl Boykins? All of them? Some combination of them? One of them?
2a. How will the person taking fewer shots react to said development?
3. What's the crunch time lineup? With Najera and Camby in there, one of Smith or Boykins has to sit. Which one will it be? How will Smith/Boykins react?

Whatever happens, it's sure to be interesting, which is a lot more than you could say about the situation in Philly over the last couple of years. But enough bitching about Philly. Here are my personal five favourite moments/games from the Allen Iverson era in Philadelphia, in reverse order. Three are from the same season, but that's understandable given the season it was.

5. It was a game in Orlando, some time during the 2004-05 season (the year the Webber trade happened, though this game was before the trade). Anyways I'm not absolutely sure how the play started; it was either a long rebound or a steal by AI in the backcourt. Either way, he was off and running. And I mean running. AI on the break, in his glory years, was a true sight to behold. Anyways, so there he is sprinting down the court, on a 3-on-2 break, with Kenny Thomas trailing the play to his right and some random dude to his left. And he's got a Magic defender back-pedalling. Uh, oh.

Now, in this situation, you'd normally expect one of two things. First, he could probably cross over the guy in front and at least get a couple of free throws, if not the and-one. Second, he could probably hit the guy on his left with a behind the back pass, one he used a lot on the break. And for a moment, it looks like he's going for option no. 2. AI wraps the ball behind his back with his right hand and makes like he's going to give it to the guy on his left (remember, he's sprinting, just haring down at this point). Instead, he takes his left hand behind his back (so now, for a split second, both his hands are behind his back, like he's hugging someone behind him), switches hands, and throws a behind-the-back pass with his left hand to Kenny Thomas on his right, who gets it in perfect stride and dunks it.

I wish youtube had a clip of this play so you could see for yourself. When I first watched this play, I didn't understand what had happened. I honestly didn't know what he did. I had to watch two replays, in slow-motion, to see what he had done. In essence, he bounced the ball of his left hand, behind his back, and found the guy trailing the play. Running. At full speed. Without travelling. I'm shaking my head as I'm writing this.

4. Playoffs, 2001. The MVP year. Eastern Conference Finals vs. Milwaukee, a team, truth be told, that was better than Philly. Game 4, on the Bucks' home floor, Philly down 2-1 with AI missing the previous game through injury (for the record, he was playing with about 12 different injuries at the same time...I swear that's not an exaggeration). The game is close, both teams scrapping, AI has been knocked all over the place the whole game. Late in the fourth, AI gets hit by an elbow on his mouth. Starts bleeding. Doesn't come out of the game. Hits the free throws. Scores 7 in a row, actually, and gets Philly the win.

Now for those who're not familiar with the NBA, you should know this: the league has a rule (affectionately known as the Magic Johnson rule) that says you can't be in a game if you're bleeding, because of health risks (no one wants to get AIDS on the basketball floor, you see). So usually what happens is, in the event that someone is fouled and has to shoot free throws, but is bleeding, the team will take a time-out, patch up the bleeding, and then get the player to shoot free throws after the time-out. This is easy enough if it's your leg or arm; you can put a band-aid on it and you're good to go. But your mouth? Have you ever put a band-aid in your mouth? Right, you haven't.

Why is this important? Because if you can't patch it up within 100 seconds (the length of the time-out), and therefore you can't shoot the free-throws, you're not allowed to re-enter the game at any point. So AI had to get his mouth to stop bleeding within 100 seconds, or he would miss the rest of the game. What did he do? Well, why don't we ask the man himself?
I didn't think the refs were going to let me back in the game because I was spitting up so much blood. I was trying to stop the bleeding, but it wouldn't stop, so I kept my mouth closed and swallowed the blood when it filled up.

Say it with me: Pound-for-pound, the toughest player to ever play the game.

3. Playoffs, 2003. First round vs the New Orleans Hornets. Game 1, in Philly. The First Union Center (or as it was known among NBA circles, the F.U. Center because of the noise in the building) was rocking. Loud as hell before the game even started. During the game? Louder still.

In one of the greatest shooting clinics I've ever seen, AI torched the Hornets for 55 on 21-32 shooting. He shot 9-11 in the fourth quarter, when defenses ostensibly take it up a notch. He also added 8 assists. His 21 field goals and 8 assists meant he was directly responsible for 29 of the Sixers' 36 field goals. Please read that sentence again.

It wasn't even a usual AI game. Normally when he would score big, he'd have a ton of trips to the line and a lot of layups and drives. Not this game. Most of it was mid-range jumpers. He kept hitting them, hand in his face or not. There was absolutely nothing anyone, least of all the Hornets, could do.

I'll always remember one play from that game. It was in the fourth, and the game was still pretty close. AI had Stacey Augmon on him, the type of long-armed defender (Augmon's 6'8") who supposedly gave AI trouble. Behind the three point line on the right wing, AI shaped like he was going to go baseline, and gave a vicious head-fake to go along with it. Augmon moved to his left to cover the drive, and on a dime, AI brought the ball back between his legs, and did it so quickly that Augmon lost his balance and fell down. AI paused for a split second, as if savoring the moment, then went up for a three. I still remember Marv Albert's voice: "Iiiverson...for threee...yesss!!" The crowd exploded. Gives me goosebumps, to the day. To the day, bro, to the day.

2. Playoffs, 2001. Round 2, vs Vince Carter's Toronto Raptors. Game 5, series tied 2-2. After AI scored 54 in Philly's Game 2 win, Toronto enforcer Charles Oakley said something to the effect of "That won't happen again. We won't let it happen." Well, guess what? It happened. AI shot 21-32 (eerie how it was the same as the Hornets game) and scored 47 in the first three quarters before slowing down in the fourth of a blowout game, ending with 52. He hit 8 three-pointers. Eight! Uff, you just had to be there.

1. Finals, 2001. Game 1 vs the hated Lakers, who were 11-0 in the playoffs up to that point. They had swept everyone, including the Spurs who had the league's best record and home court advantage. They looked invincible. Meanwhile the Sixers were banged up, missing players due to injuries. Even the guys who were playing were playing hurt, not least of all AI. In comparison to the Lakers' 11, Philly had taken 18 games just to get to the Finals, and that too from the decidedly weaker conference. But for one night, David went mano-a-mano with Goliath and, well, put it this way: it wouldn't make my number 1 AI moment if Goliath had won, would it?

The stage was this: Lakers came out on fire, Philly fell behind quickly. AI caught fire, scored something like 30 points in the first half, as the Sixers took the lead into halftime. Early third was more of the same, as Philly showed everyone they meant business, eventually going up by 15. Then Tyronne Lue came into the game, started grabbing and holding on to AI, who went cold. So did the Sixers, and slowly but surely, the Lakers worked their way back. Fourth quarter was crazy, neither team could get ahead by more than 3-4 points, and eventually the game went into overtime. In the extra session, the Lakers found their groove again, and went up 99-94 on the Sixers, who couldn't find a bucket from anywhere. AI had been completely shut off, he had scored something like 3 points in 15 minutes or something. I have watched this game about 12 times, which is why I remember Marv Albert saying, "It has become desperation time...for the Philadelphia 76ers." It really was. Anyways Raja Bell hit a miraculous scoop shot to bring the Sixers within 3 with something like 2 minutes left. Then:

Lakers miss a shot, AI finally (finally) gets free for a second. He gets the ball and races up the floor and gets fouled. It was the first daylight he had seen for about 20 minutes of basketball. Anyways, he buries the free throws. Sixers within one, 99-98. At the other end, Lue (the villain) drives and throws up an off-balance prayer of a shot, which misses badly as he falls to the floor. Once again, AI has daylight for a second as the Lakers figure out who's guarding the MVP. By the time they do, it's too late. McKie (great glue guy, by the way) finds AI in rhythm on the left wing, and AI buries the three. Marv Albert: "Iiiverson...for three...yess!! Allen Iiiverson...has given the Sixers...a 101-99 lead!" AI pumps his fists. Lakers throw away the ball trying to get the ball into the post to Shaq. Suddenly, with about 50 seconds left, the Sixers have a 2 point lead and the ball. But the game's not over yet, not by a long shot. They need a score here desperately. Raja Bell brings it up. Him and AI are the only Sixers on the right-hand side of the floor. AI's in the corner, near the sideline. Bell throws it to him, gets the hell out of the way. Lue (the villain) is on him. Marv Albert: "Iiverson...bothered by Lue." AI keeps the ball above his head, brings his arms down and back up. Still hasn't dribbled. He moves basline. Takes one dribble to his right. Lue moves to his left. AI, in the blink of an eye, brings the ball back between his legs, goes up for the jumper, right in front of the Laker bench. Nothin' but net. Lue (the villain), in an attempt to cover the cross-over, lost his balance and fell down, right next to where AI landed after burying the J. AI steps over him, has a word or two to him, scowls at the Laker bench, and gets back on defense. Game.

Youtube clip of moment number 1, right here. Watch it from 5:30 on. By the way, I paid 17 Euros for a DVD of this game. I would have spent 170.


Anonymous said...

I remember most of the AI moments you mention, because love him or hate him, they were still great basketball moments. Fitting that three of the five should be from the 2001 playoffs.

That being said, there are some flaws in your analysis of Denver. Maybe it's through the magic of League Pass that I happen to know a little more, but here goes:

It's not "No biggie. One loss here or there right now is not going to hurt them. " They're 1-7 in their last 8 or something (maybe it's 1-6 in their last 7)...this team is in trouble. Yes, there have been some huge changes and the suspensions obviously hurt them tremendously...but AI was supposed to keep them respectable and whether it's his fault or not is besides the point, the Nuggets have just stunk.
I think they're 6-7 games behind Utah, which is really hard to make up in the West, and if they don't win the division, they're pretty much done in the first round; I don't think any team in the West can handle Pho, SA or Dal (with the exception of Hou perhaps, because of Yao/ TMac...and yes, that's a better 1-2 punch than Melo / AI...another argument for another day in case you disagree, and JVG's defensive-minded, half court, playoff-appropriate style of play).

Boykins was averaging 22-24 minutes / under 10 shots a game before the suspensions and resulting trade...he'll still pretty much average that. Yes, there were times at which he was in at the end instead of Miller, there will still be times he'll be in at the end - when Den goes small with AI, JR Smith, Melo and Camby at the other 4 spots. Also, as far as the Najera argument is concerned, if everyone's healthy / shit goes according to plan, I don't think he'll be in at the end when they're going big even...Nene will be (shit going according to plan would include the fucker actually losing some of that fat).

The most interesting plot is of course, the crunch time AI vs Melo battle for the last shot. I'd love to see them try to steal the ball from each other - high comedy.

Btw, Den has also only played 15 games against the to be them.

Ahsan said...

good points, all. i agree that 6-7 games is a lot to make up but it can be done. i mean utahs due a bad run somewhere, isnt it? if that doesnt happen, then i agree that denvers in trouble, because unless they get the 5th seed, they're in big, big trouble.

najera has to play, because he's the only one on that team that plays any defense whatsoever. nene, like you mentioned, looks like he really enjoys the odd doughnut or 17.

after i wrote this post, i actually thought the crunch time battle for the ball was the least of denver's concerns. when glenn robinson first came to philly (ah, good times), AI was more than willing to set him up at the end of games. i think AI's older and more mature, so he wont have (that) many problems deferring to melo at the end of games. its the first 46 minutes that worry me. guess we can just wait and see, eh?

they're on tv again this friday, which of course doesnt matter to you, you league pass bastard.