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March 16, 2020

Retro Observations: Allen Iverson's heroic Game 1 vs. Lakers in 2001 was an instant classic

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Iverson-Shaq_031620_usat JERRY LODRIGUSS/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/SIPA

Allen Iverson tries to get past Shaquille O'Neal during the Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals.

19 years after he somehow stole a game from the dominant 2001 Lakers, Allen Iverson's classic 48-point performance in an improbable Sixers win remains one of the great individual performances in Finals history. Using every bit of 48 minutes plus overtime, the underdogs went on the road and stole one, 107-101.

Here's what I saw, 19 years later.

The Good

• It's hard to put Allen Iverson's performance in this game into proper perspective, even for people who watched it in real-time back in 2001. 30 first-half points, one of the iconic moments in NBA history, and a win over one of the most dominant teams in NBA history on their home floor snapping a 19-game win streak that dated back to April. Iverson had slain giants all season, and he didn't stop when he reached the Finals.

The thing that stands out on rewatch is how drastically the Lakers were forced to react once he got rolling. Their initial response was to overhelp and overcompensate on his drives, which opened up a few opportunities to pick up assists and force the Lakers to take fouls on plays around the basket. Once it became clear he was going to eat their single coverage alive, the Lakers started trying to trap him whenever they could, often going all the way out to halfcourt in an effort to force the ball out of his hands. Tyronn Lue being in overtime was a testament to the fear Iverson instilled in opponents — Lue played more than 22 minutes in Game 1 after not playing more than 11 in any other playoff game of that 2001 run for L.A. up to that point.

There are times when I wondered on rewatch whether the Sixers would have been better served trying to bait the Lakers into pressuring full court by having Iverson bring the ball up the floor. They didn't cope especially well when the Lakers started picking up further up the floor, but their best offense for most of the game came when they were able to get out in transition and attack odd-man advantages. Inviting more traps in the second half would have meant more four-on-three opportunities, and they did a terrible job of even getting Iverson the ball in the second half anyway.

This is the game, though, where you see why Iverson was special and would have excelled in any era you stuck him in. His activity away from the ball is better than a lot of people remember, and the "Iverson cut" lives on as a staple of NBA playbooks in his memory. He goes through stretches where absolutely nothing is falling and he can't get involved in the offense, but he needs just a sliver of daylight to make one, two, three, four shots in a row, and the game has pivoted in an instant.

(Speaking of the era arguments — Iverson definitely would have been employed as more of a one in this era, pick-and-rolling teams to death. Spreading the floor around him would have done wonders for his game, both as a scorer and a playmaker, and I think he would be just as beloved in this era as he was during his time.)

There's something unquantifiable about what made Iverson great. Call it moxie, willpower, toughness, no matter how you want to frame it, it shows up on tape. The images endure of him embracing contact with larger defenders, darting in and out of the trees for rebounds, and firing away with the knowledge that he is his team's best (and really only) hope of dethroning this Lakers team.

People love Allen Iverson because he's a stand-in for who we all believe we are, a little man in a big man's world who nonetheless keeps punching and coming out on top. This was unfortunately Iverson's peak in terms of team success — which is a powerful and hurtful part of this metaphor if you think too much about it — but for this one day, he was king of the world. 

And now, we play the hits: 

• If there was an unsung hero from this game, my vote goes to Eric Snow, who started every regular-season game for Philadelphia but only started nine times in their 23-game Finals run, with Larry Brown turning to Aaron McKie for more offensive punch. His one-footed runner in overtime is the forgotten great moment of the win, the shot that made it a two-possession game with time dwindling in the extra session, and he hit a circus layup that perhaps should have been called a charge when the Sixers desperately needed a hoop in the fourth quarter. 

Even more impressive — his defense on Kobe Bryant during the latter stages of the game, forcing him into an assortment of wild shots that clanged harmlessly off of the rim. Bryant would have his moments, as great players always do, but it's hard to ask for more than Snow gave them on defense.

• Dikembe Mutombo gets roasted for his inability to stop Shaq in this series, but at least in Game 1, it's hard to place the blame on his shoulders for Shaq's big night. Whenever Mutombo left the floor in Game 1, O'Neal would come alive, and while he didn't shut him down when he was on the floor, he was the only guy who offered resistance and forced Shaq into taking jumpers, baby hooks, and bank shots because he couldn't get close enough to the rim to throw the hammer down.

If anything, perhaps the Sixers should have gone to him more on the offensive end to make O'Neal work and exert energy somewhere other than in the post. Mutombo had the jump hook working in Game 1, and it was one of their only reliable sources of offense in a game where they came crashing down in the second half. Ideally though, the Sixers needed someone who was either a lob threat or a pop threat, and Mutombo wasn't really either. 

(There is always part of me that has wondered how different this series may have looked if Theo Ratliff had never gotten hurt, and if the Sixers decided not to pull the trigger on the Mutombo trade as a result. I think Shaq would have run through them like paper mache, but he did that anyway, and a more mobile transition threat like Ratliff may have helped make up for some of the difference on the other end.)

The big blemish in his Game 1 performance? Bricking both free throws with a chance to take the lead in the final 30 seconds of the fourth quarter. And Mutombo was a good free-throw shooter, too, so it was especially painful watching him miss the pair with the game on the line.

• Raja Bell getting away from Philadelphia before an extended career as a three-and-D guy is one of the forgotten misfires of that era, and his emergence as a playoff contributor in 2001 was one of the biggest shocks imaginable. After signing a 10-day deal in early April, Bell signed for the rest of the year and would go on to guard Kobe freaking Bryant (pretty well, I might add) in the defining series of the season.

Nobody knew it then, as Bell was still a virtual nobody at this point in his career, but he would go on to have a heated rivalry with Bryant, at least as much of a rivalry as one could have with a talent discrepancy that wide. It was clear even in those days that Bell had the chops to be a rugged perimeter defender, and you can actually see Bryant wearing down under the pressure from Bell as the game wears on.

If you think I'm exaggerating, watch this clip of Bell picking up Bryant in the backcourt in the final minutes of overtime. A guy who most people consider one of the best basketball players of all-time is so unsure of whether he can deal with Bell's defensive pressure that he actually picks up his dribble in the backcourt with the intent to dump the ball off, and is forced to take a timeout with all of his options closed off.

Philadelphia's pressure in the backcourt, by the way, was a huge part of how they got out to a lead against the Lakers early. Once the Lakers were able to get into halfcourt sets, they were drawing dead against L.A., having to send doubles at Shaquille O'Neal that either led to fouls, freed up shooters, or outright failed to stop Shaq anyway. So this wasn't just well-executed, it was the right way to go about dealing with the team they were up against. Unfortunately, it's hard to play that style of defense for 48 minutes, let alone plus overtime, and Tyronn Lue's insertion also mitigated the effectiveness of these looks.

Bell played 19 minutes, and they were all huge. In addition to the defense, he had an absurd make to cut the lead to three in overtime, a shot that everyone watching the game in Philly probably groaned about until it went down.

• One of my favorite parts of watching these old broadcasts is hearing the joy from the announcers that isn't always present in the nationally-televised games you hear today. Marv Albert is still hanging around in the play-by-play chair, but so many of the analysts are stuck criticizing the product today for what it isn't, instead of valuing what it is.

Doug Collins did not have that problem, despite his failings as a coach. The joy he has getting to call these high-stakes moments is obvious, which is part of why a moment like Iverson's stepover lives on. There is a proper recognition of the significance of the game and the performance from Iverson, and even as Iverson falters in the second half, Collins pivots into admiration for Lue's performance, rather than tearing down Iverson for not figuring out a way to get rolling.

To me, the person doing that job needs to either enhance the game with sharp analysis or match the joy for the sport of the people watching at home. Collins did both, and some of the guys today do neither. Hopefully, that changes in the near-ish future — Stan Van Gundy was terrific in limited reps with the TNT crew this year, for example.

The Bad

• The Sixers were not the only team who struggled to keep Shaquille O'Neal away from the rim in the early 2000's, and they took the additional measure of trading for Dikembe Mutombo at the midpoint of the 2000-01 season as they stared down the road at a potential Finals matchup with L.A. But even in Game 1, a game they ended up winning, you could see the writing on the wall for Philadelphia. They had absolutely no way to stop O'Neal from getting wherever he wanted on offense.

You watch some of these clips and you wonder how it is you were supposed to stop this dude from dropping 30 on you every single night. Mutombo, fresh off of winning his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award, was getting blown back every single time O'Neal leaned into him. Even when he did the job of standing him up, O'Neal's power and explosion would leave defenders compromised, leading to a lot of free throws (though fortunately for Philly, in the hands of a terrible shooter).

Consider that you also had to cope with this freak of nature as a threat to run the floor and to pound the offensive glass. The former was a problem with Philly's style, because they wanted to crash the glass hard chasing Iverson's attempts and it could leave them exposed on the back end. But there was nothing to really be done about the latter — Geiger has absolutely no chance here:

Did he get away with some physical contact? Sure. But Shaq's best trait was embracing the physical gifts he was blessed with and absolutely bulldozing opponents, forcing officials to call him for being overzealous if they so chose. They rarely did.

• Speaking of Shaq brutalizing Philly, the most questionable decision(s) from Larry Brown in this game all have to do with the big man rotation. Coaches have collectively grown less conservative with players in foul trouble over time, so some of this is a snapshot of the era, but sitting Mutombo for over half of the third quarter with three fouls was absolute insanity, and the Sixers were punished accordingly, with O'Neal turning a comfortable Sixers lead into a tight ballgame by absolutely destroying Geiger inside.

Brown doubled down with the conservative management in the fourth quarter, yanking Mutombo from the game after picking up his fifth foul with just over five minutes left in the fourth. Geiger would pick up his sixth foul 45 seconds later, buying Mutombo almost no protection with the move and only guaranteeing that your team was temporarily worse in the most critical stretch of the game. These moments are why you leave him on the bench earlier — you have to trust your guy to not pick up fouls, which Mutombo did the rest of the way.

• The funny thing about history is that the victors get to rewrite the story and gloss over the parts that don't suit the narrative. And here's the funniest part about this Philly classic — Tyronn Lue absolutely changed this game in the third quarter, minutes before becoming one half of an enduring NBA moment.  He had five steals within the first 10 minutes after checking into the game, which is absolutely outrageous, but he made a difference on the offensive end as well. To the credit of Phil Jackson, he brought some pace to this game, and everyone (including Iverson) had trouble dealing with it.

If you showed this game to someone with no knowledge of anything about basketball outside of this performance, they would think you were insane for Lue living on in hoops history as a meme.

• Even when accounting for his health at that point in the season, Aaron McKie was shockingly bad on the offensive end of the floor for most of this game, worse than I had remembered. The Lakers played him straight up for most of the game, which was a luxury they didn't afford Iverson once he got rolling, and the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year could do absolutely nothing to create separation.  

McKie had some better moments on the defensive end of the floor, and even then, Rick Fox basically ate his lunch. Winning this one with one of their better players turning in such a sorry performance was a miracle, and this was the first sign of trouble for a team that was already missing their best perimeter defender (George Lynch) due to an injury he picked up against the Raptors in the second round.

• The most shocking performance of all belonged to Tyrone Hill, whose -15 in nearly 40 minutes of action felt fitting. His inability to score is one thing, because that wasn't really his purpose for the 2001 Sixers, but he had turnovers in this game that made me want to rip my hair out. For your consideration:

Eric Snow most likely would not have made that jumper in the corner, but it is not possible for him to be more open than he was on that play. It's honestly harder for him to turn the ball over on the pass than it is for him to do anything else, and Hill managed it.

• The offense from this era wasn't exactly imaginative, but it's hard to imagine a less-inspired system. If Iverson wasn't creating it, or they weren't pushing off of a turnover, nothing was being created. 

• Jumaine Jones started in this game. That's the most noteworthy part of his performance. 

The Ugly

• The amount of powder Eric Snow put on his hands when checking into the game for the first time was absolutely preposterous. No grace period where it was being rubbed off, just coming into the game with hands like a dope boy.

Eric Snowman

Outrageous. 

• Nothing puts this game in historical focus quite like the entire crowd chanting in unison to "Who Let the Dogs Out?" by the Baha Men. Man, 2001 was a long time ago.

Speaking of time capsule moments, everybody say hello to one of the biggest rappers from the era:

JaRule 2001 NBA Finals

A long time before Fyre Festival ruined his reputation, that's for sure.


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