Iverson's game is more basic than Bryant's. He beats defenders on quickness and maneuverability, slithering through spaces like a circus contortionist. Furthermore, he can pull up and get off a decent shot from anywhere. He is an accurate shooter when going left or right, though he tends to drift when moving to his left. (But then, as Jellybean says, you don't have to be squared up when going left.) Iverson confounds perimeter defenses because he is so quick on pick-and-rolls and because he doesn't always use them. "It's hard to come up with a game plan to beat Allen when he just comes at you," says New Orleans Hornets forward Rasual Butler. "How do you combat quickness?"
Then, too, for all his problems with authority figures Iverson has the respect of the most important ones on the court--the referees. "He will flail to get calls," says Phoenix Suns assistant coach Phil Weber, "and he usually gets them." At week's end Iverson had shot more free throws per game (11.3) than any player.
On the other hand, it could be argued that Bryant's scoring is more impressive because he is not the primary ball-handler. He, too, is a smart player. Bryant's most impressive season may have been 2002-03, when he averaged 30 points even though O'Neal was on his team. Asked how he did it, Bryant tapped his index finger against his head. "I thought the game," he says. "I spent hours looking at film, seeing where my chances would best come in the offense."
Bryant's arsenal is more varied than that of Iverson. Catalog his shots from last weekend's games, and you see a little bit of everything: jumpers from either wing and the top of the key, runners down the gut, turnarounds, fadeaways, up-and-under scoops and one confounding banker that will haunt the Clippers for weeks. Also, while the Lakers run some pick-and-rolls for Bryant, he gets most of his points within the triangle, which often calls for him to feint and pivot before releasing a shot. "He has some of the best footwork in the league from that perimeter position," says Butler.
True, Jackson's offense allows Bryant to consistently get the ball in what Sixers assistant coach John Kuester calls "the scoring area." But when Bryant is on, the scoring area encompasses the North American continent. Which brings us to the killer threes. Late in the fourth quarter of Friday's game Bryant calmly dribbled downcourt, pulled up from 29 feet and--wham!--drilled a three-pointer. Twenty-five seconds later he did it again, this time from 26 feet. "I knew I was going to shoot threes from the moment I got it at the other end," said Bryant. "The guy defending me has to keep retreating because he doesn't want anyone to get behind him. Everything slows down in that situation. I take my time. The basket looks big."
Yes, you can chill a bottle of beer in this man's blood. Although Iverson does not exactly come across as warm and cuddly, he is clearly the warmer of the two--and certainly the more popular. His dogged work ethic and little-guy-takes-on-the-world ethos has always played well in blue-collar Philadelphia. And while Iverson was cheered in L.A.--the same reception he receives in every arena--Philly expat Bryant can count on getting booed whenever he comes to Tastykake Town. ( Bryant was even booed Saturday night at Staples, where the Clippers were technically the home team.) Around the NBA, AI is universally respected by execs, coaches and fellow competitors for his talent, heart and determination to be a positive force on his team. He was one of the few stand-up U.S. players during the disappointing bronze-medal run at the '04 Olympics, and last week reaffirmed his wish to play in the '08 Games. Bryant's air of hauteur and his predilection for being rough on teammates earns him widespread enmity in the league. His teammates don't love him either, notably Lamar Odom, with whom he had a dustup after a Dec. 26 loss in Washington. But following Saturday's game even Odom said, "It's like God put Kobe here for us to watch him play basketball."
Neither player is without weakness. Iverson, third in the league in steals, is first in reckless gambles. He had a splendidly economical first half against the Lakers, scoring 25 points on just 11 shots, but the man he was guarding, Smush Parker, got a career-high 21 points over those same 24 minutes. Bryant's fatal flaw is hubris. He believes he can make any shot at any time, and last weekend will only reinforce his confidence. "Allen will take the shots he wants to take," says Hornets guard Speedy Claxton, "but Kobe will bail [a defender] out and take some difficult ones." Adds one Western Conference assistant coach, " Kobe's ego gets him to do a lot of dumb things."
All scorers do dumb things, take outrageous shots and display preposterous self-confidence. The larger point about Bryant and Iverson is this: Their wills are indomitable, their obsessions with making a statement on every possession unwavering. "Both of them will carve your heart out," says Orlando Magic vice president Pat Williams, "and leave it beating on the sidewalk." It'll be fascinating to see, at season's end, which player had the sharper knife.
For a photo gallery of the season's biggest scoring explosions go to SI.com/photos.