Samuel Dalembert had to laugh when he saw Allen Iverson set himself to drive past a defender, a move he's seen teammate do hundreds of times before, only to give up the basketball.

"I saw him have that guy ready, and I asked him, 'What happened to you? You looked a little winded out there,' " the 76ers veteran center said. "And he said, 'Yeah, my heart is pumping hard.' "

Iverson returned to the Sixers last night, playing a little more than 371/2 minutes, despite the fact he hadn't played in an NBA game in nearly a month. He shot 4 of 11, grabbed five rebounds, and handed out a team-high six assists in the Sixers' 93-83 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Dalembert, one of five players on the current roster who were teammates of Iverson's during his first go-round with the Sixers, admired the now-34-year-old guard for jumping right into game action after only one practice.

"It took courage to go out there and do that," he said. "Not every player would be sitting down for that long and come in and put himself in a situation like this. That tells you a lot about this guy. He came in, and we're grateful he gave us a great effort out there. Unfortunately, we didn't finish with a win."

Dalembert joined the Sixers for the 2001-02 season, or right after Iverson led the team to the NBA Finals and won the league's most valuable player honors. He said the Wachovia Center had the same energy last night, fueled by the sellout crowd of 20,664, as it did his rookie season.

Iverson's presence on the court appeared to help the other Sixers, particularly Andre Iguodala. The Sixers' top scorer deposited 31 points and came out hot, sinking 7 of 10 attempts from the field in the first half.

"It opened up things for me a little bit more," Iguodala said. "There's not as much focus on me, so I see a lot of openings. It makes it a little bit easier. He brings the whole aura to the game."

Elton Brand also appreciated having Iverson out there. The Sixers' power forward counted three occasions on which he screened for Iverson, popped to an open spot, and converted a basket.

"Limited time, limited practice. He hasn't been out there for a while," Brand said. "He didn't have his legs under him. But to me, I was picking and popping with him, and he assisted on three of them. His defensive intensity, he took charges. He played well for someone that hasn't played in month."

And the Sixers see the day when Iverson rounds into better shape, learns coach Eddie Jordan's style of play at both ends of the court, and helps the team even more. And so does Iverson.

"I think as I get in better shape and in a basketball rhythm, used to getting up and down the court, I can help so much more because I can do so many things on a basketball court as far as taking a lot of attention away from my other guys," Iverson said.

"I think he just needs to get his legs back," Iguodala said. "I could tell he hadn't played in a while. He was bending extra deep on his free throws. He just needs some games under his belt to get back to full strength."

Brand said he looked forward to the Sixers becoming more accustomed to playing with Iverson.

"I can see this building, definitely," he said. "A lot of losses you don't want to take [positives] from. But this one, you definitely can."

As for Dalembert - who got his share of alley-oop dunks during Iverson's first stint with the team and got another couple last night - he said the night "was great. I'm glad to have him back."