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Season by season, game by game, minute by minute and shot by shot, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson score their points and make their point, which is: They will attack the basket with as much relentlessness and passion as anyone who's ever played the game. "With those guys it's not about X's and O's," says the San Antonio Spurs' defensive ace Bruce Bowen. "[The desire to score] is what ticks inside of them.
Bryant's 98-point weekend propelled him past Iverson into the NBA scoring lead--at week's end Bryant was racking up 33.7 per game, Iverson 33.1. The last player to average at least 33 points per game for a season was Jordan, whose 33.6 average in 1989-90 beat out Karl Malone, who poured in 31.0. Only once since then, in 2002-03, when the Houston Rockets' Tracy McGrady averaged 32.1 points and Bryant 30.8, have two players averaged in the 30s. Furthermore, if Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James exceeds 30 a game (at week's end he was at 30.6) and Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas bumps up his average a half-point from its current 29.5, it will be the first time since '61-62 that four players reached that threshold. That season Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points while four others were over 30: Chicago's Walt Bellamy (31.6), St. Louis's Bob Pettit (31.1) and Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson and the Lakers' Jerry West (both 30.8).
In the days before his game against the Sixers, Bryant, as disingenuous off the court as he is deadly on it, predictably pooh-poohed the notion that he and Iverson were engaged in mano a mano competition. "Oh, so this is a race?" he said sarcastically when the phrase "scoring race" came up. Then, of course, he went out and played as if he was, well, in a race, going hard to the hoop, draining all seven of his three-point shots, thumping his chest with his fist after a couple of those baskets and flashing an It's-good-to-be-the-king smile as he left the court with 3:49 remaining. That Bryant could up his absurd output just 24 hours later is mind-boggling. But then, his unmatched ability to conjure such magic on demand makes him, in the minds of many league insiders, the closest thing to a Jordan heir. Take the 62 points he scored in just three quarters during a 112-90 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 20. Infuriated by a 76-74 home loss to the Houston Rockets two nights earlier, Bryant had informed his teammates at shootaround that he was "going to handle it" that night. Asked last week how many he could have scored had he not sat out the entire fourth quarter, Bryant settled on 80. Judging from that game and the two last weekend (not mention the 27 shots per game that he's heaving, nearly 10 more than his career average), Bryant knows it's a race. And he wants to win.
Iverson denies having any interest in a transcontinental scoring duel, and, being less Machiavellian than the Lakers superstar, perhaps AI--despite throwing up 26 shots per game, nearly three more than his career average--is to be believed. "Scoring is an individual goal," Iverson said two days before the L.A. game. "[The scoring title] is something I've accomplished four times ['99, '01, '02 and '05]. It's an I've-been-there-done-that type of thing. Honestly, it would be good to see if Kobe could do it one time."
The presence of James adds another intriguing layer to the scoring battle. (Is battle O.K., Kobe?) Barring a teamwide collapse, LeBron's Cavs (20-11 at week's end) will make the playoffs, while both the Lakers (17-16) and the 76ers (16-17) will have to scramble to get in. Bryant and Iverson are indeed shepherds of mediocre flocks. Against L.A., Iverson committed seven turnovers, but a few of them resulted from passes fumbled by center Samuel Dalembert, for whom the word finish refers only to the polyurethane he applies to his kitchen floor. Lakers power forward Kwame Brown, meanwhile, has manos de piedra, not to mention an aversion to perspiration. During the third period on Friday, Bryant dived full length for a loose ball and tipped it toward the former No. 1 pick. Brown, no diver he, couldn't corral it before it went out-of-bounds.
Yes, the 6'7" Bryant and the 5'11" Iverson dream of rings, but this season they might as well be chasing the rings of Saturn. "I'd trade all of [my scoring titles] for one," says Iverson in what has become his mantra (and perhaps his epitaph). Bryant has three of them, but in his mind, they bear an asterisk: Got 'em with Shaq. And Shaquille O'Neal will happily remind anyone, anytime, that he, not Bryant, was the MVP in each of those Finals.
On the night Bryant scored 62, Iverson was relaxing at home in suburban Philly, an NBA fan for the evening. "I bought my popcorn and watched like everyone else," says Iverson, who spent much of the third quarter calling up his buddies to ensure they weren't missing out on Bryant's explosion.
Bryant was pleased when informed that Iverson had seen his outburst against Dallas, in which he outscored the entire Mavericks team through three quarters. But asked if he follows Iverson's stats on a daily basis, Bryant responded, with careful enunciation, "I. Could. Sincerely. Care. Less." Kobe does admit, however, that he admires the Answer's consistency of effort. "I respect him for that, because, for me, playing hard is like a religion," Bryant says. "But that's it. He's like--what?--five-foot-whatever. We're completely different." Which is why, of course, comparisons between the two are so interesting.
Bryant's absurd weekend notwithstanding, one could argue that Iverson is having the more impressive season. He handles the ball on almost every trip down the court (and led the league through Sunday with 42.9 minutes per game) and, under new coach Maurice Cheeks, has taken on more of what Lakers coach Phil Jackson calls "think-guard" responsibilities. "Because he's so physically gifted, people overlook Allen's mental capacity," says injured Lakers swingman Aaron McKie, who played with Iverson in Philly for 71/2 seasons.
Then, too, Iverson--whose 27.4 career scoring average coming into the season tied him for third with Elgin Baylor on the alltime list behind only Jordan (30.12) and Chamberlain (30.07)--collects his plunder without posting up or getting high-percentage dunks. Whereas Bryant is in the mold of swingman scorers such as Jordan and George Gervin, Iverson is sui generis. Among the league's vertically challenged players, only Nate (Tiny) Archibald had a season that merits comparison with Iverson's; Archibald led the league in both scoring, 34.0, and assists, 11.4, in 1972-73 for the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. The Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas, as good as any little man ever, could break down a defense the way Iverson does, but he never averaged more than 22.9 points in any season. (Although Thomas would argue, perhaps persuasively, that he could have scored more if he'd needed to.)