With the NBA season on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Inquirer has listed its most memorable 76ers playoff games dating to when they moved from Syracuse before the 1963-64 season. Is your favorite missing? Send feedback to Marc Narducci at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First of 12 parts.
Allen Iverson almost always lifted his game to a higher level in the NBA playoffs. It’s true that he never won an NBA championship, but it takes more than one player -- even one who seemingly can’t be stopped -- to win it all.
Iverson ranks second in career playoff scoring average at 29.7 points in 71 games, 62 with the 76ers. That’s right -- Iverson has a higher postseason scoring average than Jerry West, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Elgin Baylor, the players directly behind him.
Only Michael Jordan, with a 33.45 postseason scoring average, tops Iverson.
In addition, Iverson’s playoff scoring average was higher than his career regular-season average of 26.7.
In the history of the 76ers, including their existence as the Syracuse Nationals before moving to Philadelphia for the 1963-64 season, a member of the team has scored 40 or more points in a playoff game 17 times, according to Basketball-reference.com. Iverson has 10 of those games, including four of the top five.
That’s what makes the night of April 20, 2003, extraordinary, even by Iverson’s standards.
The Sixers faced a talented New Orleans Hornets team in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It was a hard-fought first-round matchup, and the Sixers, two years after losing to the Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals, were looking to rebound after being eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the previous season’s first round.
With a 48-34 regular-season record, the Sixers were the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. New Orleans (47-35) was fifth. The teams were as close as their records. New Orleans won two of three games between the teams in the regular season. Two of the games were close, a 99-98 Hornets win at New Orleans and a 94-89 New Orleans win in Philadelphia. The Sixers won, 108-87, at home in the only blowout.
This was expected to be a tough series, and Game 1 backed that up. Iverson scored a career playoff-high 55 points, and the Sixers needed nearly every one of them.
The Sixers outlasted the Hornets, 98-90, before 19,711 fans at the then-First Union Center.
New Orleans made one major tactical error in the game.
“They were letting [Iverson] play one-on-one, and he had it going, and it was one of those series,” said former Sixer and current Temple coach Aaron McKie in a recent interview.
Iverson shot 21-for-32 from the field, including 3-for-5 from three-point range, and 10-for-11 from the foul line. He also added eight assists, meaning that Iverson was responsible for at least 71 of his team’s 98 points.
Billy King, the Sixers general manager at the time, recalled that Iverson seemed ready for a big game, a big series.
“I know he was focused, so excited to be in the playoffs, and he was determined to light up the stage,” King said in a recent interview. “One thing people didn’t realize about Allen is how much a student of the game he was. He knew what people did in the playoffs, and he knew that was his moment because the world was watching.”
In retrospect, Iverson’s achievements in this and many games still amazes former Sixers coach Larry Brown.
“I have been going back and looking at these games on YouTube, and my appreciation for him is only greater,” Brown said. “I am kind of in awe of the things this kid did, and it is just remarkable.”
Most remarkable was the fourth quarter of this game, when Iverson scored 20 points, hitting 9 of 11 shots, including both three-pointers. And he didn’t go to the foul line in that quarter.
That was about the only thing he didn’t do while playing all 12 minutes that quarter and 46 minutes, 40 seconds for the game.
One footnote on that fourth quarter is that McKie hit all three of his shots and scored six points. The rest of the team went 0-for-3.
The fact that the win came over such a formidable first-round opponent made it even more impressive. Brown knew the game plan was to feature Iverson almost exclusively.
“That was how we had to win,” Brown said. “Keith [Van Horn] was our second primary scorer on that team.”
Van Horn had an off-game, scoring just three points and shooting 1-for-8.
Making up for Van Horn was point guard Eric Snow, who had 15 points and 10 assists, although he shot just 3-for-13. McKie had a strong effort off the bench with 12 points on 6-for-9 shooting.
“That was a really good New Orleans team led by [Jamal] Mashburn,” Brown recalled.
Mashburn, who was an All-Star selection in 2003, had a team-high 28 points but shot just 8-for-21 from the field. Point guard Baron Davis had 10 points and six assists but six costly turnovers.
It was a physical game in which 59 total fouls were called.
The game was still tight after former 76er George Lynch made a 14-footer to cut the Sixers lead to 86-84 with 4:06 left. But consecutive threes by Iverson on the Sixers’ next two possessions expanded the lead to 92-84, and they finally had breathing room.
This was as tough a series as forecast. The Sixers won in six games, capped by a 107-103 victory in New Orleans. Iverson scored 45 points, and Van Horn added 18 points and 18 rebounds in that Game 6 clincher.
The Sixers lost to Detroit in the next round. By the next season, Brown was coaching that same Pistons team to the NBA title.
The New Orleans playoff series was the last one Iverson won, not only with the Sixers but in his career.