Fortunately for the Lakers, their on-the-court strategy for containing Iverson was more sophisticated. Because he's lethal when he catches the ball on the move, L.A. made every effort to make him work from a standing start. When he had the ball in transition they often sent a second defender, usually Horry or Horace Grant, to double him as he came into the frontcourt, trying to apply enough pressure to force him to put on the brakes or, preferably, make a pass.
The scheme worked well enough to limit Iverson's fast-break points, but Los Angeles's job wasn't nearly finished. In the half-court, its approach depended on where Iverson received the ball. When he was in the middle of the floor, near the top of the key, the Lakers often overplayed him, trying to force him to go left because the Sixers are largely a right-handed team, meaning many of their plays begin with the ball moving to the right. When Iverson was on the wing, L.A. tried to push him toward the baseline. "If you can't keep the ball out of his hands, you have to try to take away some of the floor once he gets it," Horry said. "Our guards try to limit his options. He can get the jumper anytime he wants, so all you can do is hope he's not hitting it. If he drives, you have to hope the help comes quick enough. There's a lot of hope involved."
The Lakers also hoped using a variety of defenders on Iverson would tire him, but as the series progressed it looked more likely that he would wear down his opponents. (The source of Iverson's stamina—he played all but three minutes of the first three games—is something of a mystery, since he disdains the weight room and says games are the only workouts he needs.) After 22 surprisingly effective minutes of chasing Iverson in Game 1, guard Tyronn Lue had to lean against the wall for support while showering. "We put Derek, who's physical, on him," said L.A. reserve guard Brian Shaw. "We put Kobe, who's taller, on him, and we put Tyronn, who has speed, on him—and he kept going. It shows what great shape he's in. He doesn't just run all game long, he goes at full speed all game long."
It may seem that way, but Iverson has discovered that there's a benefit to varying his pace. "He's been a lot smarter about using more than only his quickness and athleticism this season," says Sixers assistant Randy Ayers. When Philadelphia played the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, Iverson watched the way Reggie Miller expertly used the picks set for him. He asked the coaching staff for tapes of Miller to scrutinize, and he has adopted some of the master's techniques.
Just as Iverson studied Miller, the Lakers studied Iverson—particularly the 6-foot Lue, who was charged with the task of imitating him during practice. "It was like I was back in college," says Lue, who averaged 21.2 points as a senior at Nebraska, in 1997-98. "I did crossovers, between-the-legs, behind-the-back. I shot step-back threes, the way he does." He was also battered by the L.A. players nearly as much as Iverson would be. "I've never been knocked around like that," Lue says. " Shaq bent me backward. Every time I came in the lane they sent two and three people at me, and they were very physical."
Impersonating Iverson helped Lue when he was sent in to guard him in Game 1. He's the only Laker with the quickness to deny Iverson the ball on a consistent basis, and that's exactly what he did for much of the second half, over Iverson's protestations that Lue was holding him. Iverson, however, extricated himself enough to score seven points in overtime to seal Philly's win.
Although that victory established that the series would not be a walkover, the Sixers may look back on the near misses in the next two games as the ones that cost them the championship. "We could have had these two games with a bounce here and a bounce there," Iverson said on Sunday. "I think we've gotten the Lakers' respect, but that's not enough. We're here because we want to win something."
The Sixers may not appreciate it yet, but they already have.
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