Allen Iverson's broken hand won't stop the Sixers in their run to the postseason
Derrick Coleman sat at his locker in Boston last Friday and politely answered questions about the injury to 76ers teammate Allen Iverson, who had broken his left hand two hours earlier. Coleman seemed to be taking the bad news very well indeed—until he was told that the league's reigning MVP might be sidelined for four to six weeks. "Four to six weeks?" yelled Coleman. He shouted across the locker room to point guard Eric Snow, "Four to six weeks?"
"But he doesn't need surgery," said Snow, trying to emphasize the bright side. "That means he could come back early."
Iverson was driving to the basket in the first quarter when Celtics center Tony Battie chopped down on his left hand, fracturing the second metacarpal. Iverson, who has a high threshold for pain, looked as if he had suffered nothing worse than a broken fingernail as he played the rest of the half. "He was telling me the whole half it was broken," said Snow, pointing out that Iverson scored 20 points after the injury.
The Sixers' 96-91 victory showed Eastern Conference rivals why they'd better not write off Philadelphia. After Iverson headed to a hospital at halftime, the 76ers turned up their defense and hit clutch shots, reminding coach Larry Brown of the team that went to the Finals last year. " Boston thought we would be mentally weak because we didn't have Allen," said center Dikembe Mutombo. "We are going to be successful because many teams will be counting us out."
Mental toughness will take the Sixers only so far. Through Sunday they were 1-8 without Iverson, in part because reigning Sixth Man Award winner Aaron McKie had been either sidelined or hindered by injury. McKie has played only four games since suffering a high left ankle sprain on Jan. 25, and his absence had heaped more pressure than ever on Iverson, who was averaging a career-and league-high 31.4 points while shooting a career-low 39.8%. But those numbers don't tell the whole story. Two hours before Iverson's injury Brown said, " Allen has been having a better year than he had last year." The 76ers hope that McKie, who returned on Sunday, will supply the scoring, defense and leadership they desperately need.
Iverson, McKie and Snow are the only holdovers from the team that was 41-14 through Feb. 22 last season. Even though many of those Brown dealt—Theo Ratliff, George Lynch, Tyrone Hill and Toni Kukoc—have been injured this year, he has been criticized for letting them get away. While admitting that he might have been able to acquire the 6'10" Coleman without sending Lynch to the Hornets in an eight-player, three-team trade in October, Brown says Lynch was included in the deal because of his demand for a new contract. "I don't want to keep anybody who isn't going to be happy," Brown says. Had he known that Matt Geiger was going to retire in November, Brown says, he would have tried harder to retain backup center Todd MacCulloch, who signed a six-year, $33.8 million contract with the Nets.
Since trading for Mutombo in February 2001, the Sixers have gone 52-44. Though injuries have been a factor, the team is also slower with Coleman, 34, and Mutombo, 35, who is averaging career lows in blocks (2.43 per game) and rebounds (11.0). Mutombo has missed Lynch and Hill on defense, and the new three-second rule has forced him out of the paint. It hasn't helped that he has played in every game and averaged 36.5 minutes, second to Iverson on the team. Says Mutombo, "I am feeling fatigue."
The more deliberate pace of the playoffs should suit Mutombo and Coleman—as long as Coleman is able to play. Since November he has been bothered by a mysterious left knee injury. Last week the Heat's orthopedic specialist, Harlan Selesnick, told Coleman that his MRI revealed a possible tear of the meniscus. But Coleman says that renowned sports surgeon James Andrews diagnosed the injury as arthritis and normal wear and tear. Although he was criticized for malingering last year in Charlotte, the sight of him producing 18 points and 10 rebounds on one leg in Sunday's 90-82 win over the Knicks doesn't square with that image.
With 13 games remaining, Philadelphia isn't likely to blow its 5�-game cushion over the Raptors, Wizards and Heat Even if the 76ers limp in as the eighth seed, Mutombo likes their chances. The playoffs will start just as Iverson is due to return. "He gives us so much," Mutombo says, "so now we are going to give this to him. When he comes back, he is going to be physically fit." A healthy Iverson with fresh legs for the playoffs? That should be a frightening thought for all of Philly's Eastern rivals.