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How I learned to love Allen Iverson

A blast from the past on one of the best Sixers to ever do it.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

I always thought Allen Iverson was overrated.

That’s akin to heresy coming from a devout Sixers’ fan, but keep in mind that I was a mere three months old when he stepped over Tyronn Lue. I didn’t grow up with AI wearing my favorite uniform and pouring in over 30 points a night. I grew up with Andre Igoudala-led teams fighting tooth and nail to get the seven or eight seed year after year. Iverson was nothing more than someone who used to play for the Sixers.

As I grew older and my knowledge of basketball history deepened, I had a basic understanding for how The Answer played and what legacy he held.

An all-time volume scorer. A cultural phenomenon. The offensive engine behind the only Philadelphia 76ers team to make the NBA Finals in the last 40 years and many people’s pick for their favorite Sixers player ever.

But talk to anyone you might consider a true historical nerd when it comes to the sport, and different opinions ensue. Iverson was not the most efficient scorer, but one who was wired to shoot first, second and third. His shortcomings as both a playmaker for others and on defense is often cited by those analysts who rank him far lower on the all-time rungs than others. Additionally, the 2001 Sixers making the NBA Finals is better evidence of the Eastern Conference’s futility at the time rather than Iverson’s individual greatness.

I didn’t hate Iverson, and I still valued him as a true Hall-of-Fame-level player, but any time someone tried to place him in the pantheon of the true historical greats, I scoffed at the notion.

That was until this past week, when I finally took the time to watch those ‘01 Sixers in full for my Patreon page. I was now covering games from the NBA’s past, rather than reading the Allen Iverson CliffsNotes and moving on.

The first thing that jumps out watching Iverson is how much of the Bucks’ defensive gameplan is tilted toward him. Double teams of off ball screens and three to four defenders collapsing into the paint are things that all superstars of a certain ilk will encounter in the later stages of the playoffs, but the Bucks took it a step further in their attempts to contain the 160-pound guard out of Georgetown.

Milwaukee was insistent that a) Iverson would always be forced left whenever he had the ball in any kid of attacking position, and b) that the whole defense was to orbit and keep eyes on him whenever he held the ball. Take this play from early on in Game 4, when the Bucks play an aggressive Ice coverage against the ball screen, only for AI to split it and create an open jumper for his teammate against the scrambling defense.

(I kept that clip extra long because I had to make sure you all saw that and-one putback from everyone’s favorite Sixers player turned professional pinball player Todd MacCulloch.)

Like an overprotective parent setting up cones for their new teenage driver in the parking lot, the Bucks are doing everything they can to keep Iverson on a predetermined path to the left, and even then he’s still able to rip right and attack the screen in his desired direction.

Milwaukee was so locked in on its strategy for guarding Iverson that their defenders were practically guarding The Answer from behind just to take away any chance he might have at exploding to his strong right hand attacking the basket in his preferred method.

Remind you of anyone?

Of course, the weak-force defense employed on Iverson was far less drastic than it was on Houston-era Harden, when the Bucks’ and Jazz’s guard-from-behind strategy practically led SportsCenter for multiple weeks back in 2019. But the point is true all the same — in 2001, Iverson’s Plan A on offense was so good that an opponent all but gave in to a counterintuitive strategy just to try to make him try Plan B from time-to-time.

The few times the Bucks did let Iverson get loose for any kind of drive to his right during the ‘01 series, it’s clear how George Karl and his staff came to this conclusion. Every single time he could dip his shoulder past his man for a drive to the right, the result was all but guaranteed to be an AI layup or a wide open shot for a fellow Sixer.

That’s not to say that Iverson brought Milwaukee to its knees or was without fault in this series. His detractors might point to some of his horrid shooting lines in his six games played (Iverson missed Game 3 of the series with injury) and conclude that he was a net negative for Philadelphia.

There’s no way to make a screenshot such as this look pretty.

But disparaging Iverson for his occasional cold streaks and proclivity for large missed shot totals disregards the most admirable trait — his relentless spirit.

It was no more evident in this series than it was in Game 6 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, a game the Sixers lost 110-100 as the Bucks forced a Game 7 back in Philly. Though it looks like it was a competitive playoff bout on the surface, for three quarters it was an all-time romp that Milwaukee was enjoying back at home. This is a screenshot from the broadcast late in the third quarter.

No need to slip on your reading glasses or adjust your computer screen, you’re reading that correctly. With 1:30 remaining in the third quarter, the Sixers trailed the Milwaukee Bucks by a score of 80-49!!!

Iverson had yet to hit the 20-point mark, while on the other side of the court, Ray Allen had exploded for 41 points on a then-record nine threes made in a game. The Bucks finished with a scoring pace of 131.5 points per 100 possessions. Scoring that efficiently in the early 2000s NBA was akin to witchcraft.

Yet miraculously, this is also a scorebug screenshot from the same game.

How does a team go on a 30-9 run in a mere 8:23 of gameplay to cut into a 31-point deficit?

Allen Freaking Iverson, that’s how.

Larry Brown originally pulled Iverson and the other starters late in the third quarter, understandably seeing the contest as a lost cause and wanting his squad rested up for Game 7. But instead of riding the bench for 12 more minutes and being forced to watch Kevin Ollie and Matt Geiger pick-and-rolls, the six-foot guard sat next to his coach and gradually convinced him that he deserved to be subbed back in one last time in hope of a potential rally.

Iverson hadn’t been dogging it or going at anything less than full throttle through the first three-fourths of Game 6, but he flipped a switch inside himself as the fourth started, one that read, “I am going berserk because that is the only chance our team has at winning this,” on his way to 26 points in the quarter, 17 of which he accumulated in the first four minutes of the period.

My favorite sequence by far had to be the following, where Iverson immediately goes for a snatch back three after bringing the ball up the court, misses short, but then immediately grabs the long rebound and without a second of thought goes up for a three once more, this time draining it and drawing a foul via a helicopter spin to the floor for the four-point play.

The first shot is bold enough as is, but the second is straight badass. It’s a keen understanding of the moment by Iverson, and understanding of what he meant to that team. The ‘01 Sixers were not teeming with offensive talent. Their second-leading scorer on the year was a guy they traded away in Theo Ratliff. Eric Snow was fifth in points per game despite shooting 41.8 percent from the field. They were a defensively talented bunch who could always keep themselves in the game in case the firecracker that was a red hot Allen Iverson ever went off.

He knew he was their only chance in that moment, and he willed it so that the Sixers were going to find a way back into that game. Mere moments after he completed the four-point play with a free throw, he used his legendary lateral quickness to blow up a Milwaukee pick-and-roll and go coast-to-coast for another finish through a foul.

Iverson beating a lackadaisical Jason Caffey to that loose ball following the deflection is symbolic of everything that was happening in that moment — Iverson simply wanted it more than everyone else on the floor. It was an avalanche, as you could feel through the screen the 2001 MVP getting into a red hot rhythm. The very next possession, he hit the Bucks with another three, making it his third of the quarter, and forced a timeout from Coach Karl to stop the rampage.

Though the Sixers would ultimately fall short in Game 6 despite the 46-point performance from Iverson, it set the stage for Game 7 — a wire-to-wire coronation for the true King of the East that season.

The Answer poured in 44 points on a hyper-efficient 61 TS%, including four triples, the last of which was an absolute dagger to put the Sixers up by double-digits entering the fourth quarter as they had begun to pull away.

At the time, Iverson had tied Charles Barkley for the fifth-most points EVER scored in a Game 7. It ultimately doesn't mean much, but you can go to your grave saying that Michael Jordan never scored as many points in a Game 7 as Allen Iverson did and no one can tell you that you’re wrong.

While Iverson was the center of my attention throughout my whole watch of the series, it was in the final five quarters that he truly captured my heart. I knew he played hard. I knew he could go on unstoppable tears. What I did not know was what it felt like to see either the home crowd rally behind the diminutive guard as he got going, or conversely hear the road crowd grow more tense after each Iverson bucket. Even for a setting as large as the final two matches of the Eastern Conference Finals, he played with a fire that almost seems irrational, like he’s unlocked a new level of caring about the game that isn’t possible for the rest of us mortal beings.

It’s impossible to not root for the most talented player on the court when he’s also playing as if he has the most to lose.

Iverson should not have been as good as he was. Six-foot, 160-pound humans are not supposed to be able to withstand the rigors of the NBA, let alone someone whose playstyle was defined by constantly crashing to the ground amidst fearless forays to the rim.

But just like there’s no way the Sixers should have been able to make that Game 6 competitive down the stretch, Iverson found a way, as though he was the pure incarnation of willpower itself.

I understand why so many of you love Allen Iverson, because after finally taking some time to watch him myself, I can’t help but love him too.

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