- Jerry Bembry
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PHILADELPHIA -- He had been the NBA scoring leader in three of the last four seasons, but this season he ranked third.
He had seen his scoring average increase for four straight seasons, but this year it fell nearly four points to 27.6 points per game -- his lowest average since the 1998-99 season.
Some might see that as examples of Allen Iverson showing some slippage after years of throwing his body in the lane against the big boys. The reality is that Iverson is evolving as a player in ways that go well beyond his 55 points in Sunday's Game 1 against the Hornets of their opening-round series.
For the Hornets to make this live up to the competitive series that everyone expected, coach Paul Silas' game plan of not double-teaming Iverson will have to undergo a major overhaul, especially with the knee injury suffered by Hornets guard Baron Davis, who, while an MRI came up negative, could miss Wednesday's Game 2 in Philadelphia.
"I'm not sure how much I can play," said Davis, who played 37 minutes in Game 1 and scored just 10 points. "I feel if I can give five good minutes at a time, or 10 good minutes at a time and if the knee stops stiffening up, I can give as much as I can."
Much of the reason why Davis and backcourt partner David Wesley (five points, 1-of-5 from the field) could not get into an offensive flow was partly because of the Sixers' solid defense and partly because of the energy they expended chasing Iverson. By the end of the first half, Silas even had defensive specialist Stacey Augmon take a shot at defending Iverson, to no avail.
It's easy to boil everything into numbers and, that said, Iverson's 55-point explosion -- 30 in the second half -- was impressive. But here's what I found extraordinary: Iverson's 32 shots all came within the flow of the offense. For a guy with a rep for being shot-happy in the past, Iverson never forced any shots and always stayed within the offensive game plan.
"What's great about what he did is, if you didn't look at the stat sheet, you probably would not have assumed that he scored 50," Sixers point guard Eric Snow said. "In fact, he didn't get much in transition at all. It's just an example that we can execute our offense and Allen can still get his."
In past years, Iverson may have gotten caught up in the league scoring race, but this year, he toned down his offense and never tried to get into the battle between Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. The result: His 454 assists were the most since the 1997-98 season (his second) and Iverson had the most confidence in the offensive ability of his teammates than at any time in his seven-year career.
"I don't try to put pressure on myself to go out and score like somebody else," said Iverson, who had a team-high eight assists in Game 1, six in the first quarter. "Keith Van Horn or Aaron (McKie) might be hot, and they might need me to penetrate and dish. That's what team is all about."
Adds Snow: "The fact that I did more scoring this season (his 12.9-point average was a career high) is because Allen did more passing. He believes that we can come through."
That's why now is the time for the rest of the team to come through. Snow didn't have his best shooting night in Game 1, missing 10 of 13 shots. And the starting frontcourt of Van Horn, Kenny Thomas and Derrick Coleman scored a combined 11 points on 4-of-16 shooting. That's not going to make a team competitive in a seven-game series.
Iverson's one-man show on Sunday was a pleasure to watch, but he's grown well beyond being an entertaining scoring machine. And if the rest of the Sixers want to realize their dream of getting back to the NBA Finals, they're going to have to stand beside Iverson -- not behind him.
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.
Don't let the double-nickel against the Hornets fool you. Allen Iverson is a team player now.