Arthritis. Noun. Definition: Inflammation of a joint, usually accompanied by pain, swelling and stiffness, and resulting from infection, trauma, degenerative changes, metabolic disturbances, or other causes. It occurs in various forms, such as bacterial arthritis, osteoarthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis.

Allen Iverson has been diagnosed with arthritis in his left knee. He knows what it is, he knows the way the 76ers will want to treat it, and he knows how it feels. But only one word popped into the 34-year-old's head when he heard the diagnosis.

Old.

"That was the worst part of the whole thing," Iverson said with a laugh yesterday after he watched the team practice at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "You could have said anything but arthritis. I mean, that sounds so old. But it's something that I've got to deal with and that's what it is."

After not playing for close to a month after his brief three-game stint with the Memphis Grizzlies this season, Iverson jumped right into the fray with the Sixers, admittedly out of shape and lacking his normal basketball skills. That didn't stop him from putting in major minutes in his five games back in Philadelphia, as he's averaged 34.4 minutes since returning.

It could have been what has cost him the past three games and perhaps two more.

"Just trying to jump back into it too soon," Iverson said, when asked what he thought caused the injury. "I wasn't ready, in no type of shape. I had the problem in my right leg [stress reaction of right fibula] and obviously I was favoring that leg and put all the pressure on my left and it flared up. It was just being out that long and coming right back and trying to jump right back into the war. My leg didn't respond."

He had 55, 55 and 50 cubic centimeters drained from the knee. "Three times in 5 days," Iverson said. "After a while, enough is enough. After the last one it was right before the [Cleveland] game that I got it done. And then right after the game it flared up again. I was just tired of it happening. There was no way I could go the rest of the season with getting it drained every game. Hopefully, I don't know the medical terms, but everything they did to me, as far as the injections and everything, they put me on some medicine, anti-inflammatory, hopefully that will work. I come back on the 28th [in Utah]. [Hopefully] I don't have to deal with it for the rest of the season."

That's the hope at least. In the meantime, the guard position will be handled by youngsters Lou Williams, who has played one game since returning from a broken jaw, and rookie Jrue Williams. Vet Willie Green can solidify whenever and wherever is needed.

Iverson thinks the young guys are quite capable of handling the load.

"That's some young talent," Iverson marveled. "I've been seeing Lou for a while and I've seen his development. I was basically a part of that being around him and watching him grow. Jrue, you can just see him learning on the fly. He's so young but he does a lot of great things out there on the basketball court. He's going to make his mistakes, and rightfully so, it's just something you have to be patient with and let him grow as a basketball player. One of the most positive things about him is him wanting to learn and wanting to get better. Being able to take constructive criticism, and that's only going to be a plus throughout his career."

Come Monday, when Iverson should be returning, the diminutive guard doesn't see his minutes being cut, maybe just being dispersed differently.

"It's always ultimately going to be up to coach [Eddie Jordan]," said Iverson of his minutes per game. "As far as the rotation, they have me going in for 6-to-8 minute spans and then taking me out. But a lot of times when you go out and you sit out for a while, it stiffens up and it gets worse. I don't know, hopefully most days it will feel good to where I don't have to come out that quickly in the game. I can basically play the first quarter then sit out some of the second and then finish it out. We'll see. I'll let him know how it feels and the training staff, let them know how I feel. We'll see from there."

Williams, who broke his jaw Nov. 24 in Washington, will be back in the starting lineup tonight, alongside Holiday. He insists he is ready, despite limited practice since having the wires clipped last week. And Jordan agrees.

"I hate to sit a guy like Lou Williams who [prior to injury], the last six games or five games, was averaging over 25 points a game," Jordan said. (His actual numbers were 23.6 points in five games before being sidelined.) "He didn't lose his job because of not performing. He wanted to come back. That's a good thing."

"I wasn't worried about my jaw, I wasn't worried about my conditioning, I was just out there playing," said Williams of his 23-plus minutes of play in Saturday's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. "That's the second time in a month that I've been out on the court doing something competitive. I was just out there having fun.

"It's muscle memory. It's been 4 weeks [today], so that's a month. I started last week doing some contact stuff, so it's 3 weeks off the basketball court, so it hasn't been that long. I'm prepared for it."