March 23, 2002
What began as just another fearless drive to the basket by Allen Iverson against just another towering center trying to swat the ball away ended with an injury sure to send shock waves throughout the NBA.
Leading with his left hand, Iverson went up for a layup early in the first quarter and was met by the outstretched arms of Tony Battie. The force of the hit broke Iverson's left hand. The injury means the league's leading scorer will miss the next 4-6 weeks and probably not return until the playoffs are underway.
While the news certainly will affect all teams with playoff plans in the tightly packed Eastern Conference, fans (18,624) at a soldout FleetCenter last night may have witnessed the biggest impact. The Celtics were better when Iverson played through the pain during the first half. When Iverson left at halftime with 22 points for X-rays at New England Baptist Hospital, the Celtics' defensive intensity and ability to execute offensively also exited. By outplaying Boston over the final two quarters, Philadelphia came back from a 15-point, first-half deficit to win, 96-91.
If the playoffs started today, No. 3-seeded Boston would meet No. 6-seeded Philadelphia. Home-court advantage: Celtics. Psychological advantage: 76ers.
"We didn't play with a sense of urgency [when Iverson was not in the game]," said Paul Pierce (26 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists). "We didn't have a war mentality in the second half. We must have thought we could just cakewalk with Iverson not playing the second half. We just sat back and let them dictate the tempo and dictate the game for some reason. Why, I don't know."
After Iverson (left the game):
The Sixers began the third quarter with a 9-3 run. When Craig "Speedy" Claxton proved worthy of his nickname with a driving layup, Philadelphia took its first lead (54-53) with 9:17 remaining in the quarter. For one significant stretch, Claxton gave the Sixers speed and scoring comparable to Iverson, notching 7 of his 11 points during the first five minutes of the third. While the Sixers were energized by Claxton, the 3-point shooting of Rodney Rogers (15 points) did the same for the Celtics. Rogers hit three of Boston's six shots from the arc that quarter.
It was a good thing the Celtics had their 3-point game to fall back on because they were outhustled and outrebounded, 12-2, in the third. The active hands and defensive pressure that led to eight steals in the first half and held the Sixers to 39.5 percent shooting disappeared. Philadelphia shot 60 percent in the third and Boston did not have a single steal. The Celtics were also outscored, 16-2, in the paint and 12-2 on second-chance points that period. That said, after the game was tied eight times in the third, Boston entered the fourth ahead, 77-76. But the Celtics' lead was short-lived.
The Celtics made just 3 of 19 shots in the fourth (15.8 percent), and it was far from enough to keep pace with the Sixers. With 6:40 remaining, a 3-pointer by Antoine Walker (17 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists) tied the game at 86. The Sixers mounted a 6-0 run with all three field goals coming from Derrick Coleman, who was just as big on the boards (15 rebounds) as he was on offense (15 points). Walker brought the Celtics within 92-90 by hitting a pair of free throws with 2:12 remaining, but they would come no closer. They went without a field goal for the final 2:47.
"Every game is like a playoff game and we've got to consider it that way, regardless of who we're playing against, who the opponent is, and what happens during the course of the game," said Tony Delk (9 points).
Before Iverson (left the game):
There was plenty to admire about the Celtics early as the home team built a 14-point (29-15) lead shortly before the first frame ended. The Celtics shot 58.3 percent with good ball movement. They finished the first with 10 assists (four from Kenny Anderson and three from Walker). The most highlight-worthy pass came from Anderson, who was in danger of losing the ball out of bounds along the left sideline with Pierce speeding toward the basket. Anderson kept the ball inbounds by cupping it behind his back. Then, he heaved a pass to Pierce for a dunk that pushed Boston ahead, 17-9. There was also a pretty passing sequence on the break, going from Anderson to Walker to Rogers for a layup.
The Celtics established a game-high 15-point (33-18) advantage with 11:02 left in the second. But the Sixers closed the quarter with a 7-0 run, leaving Boston with a 50-45 halftime lead. Iverson capped the run with a 15-footer that would amount to his curtain call for the regular season.
"If you give a team like that confidence, energy, when their star player goes down, you lose focus," said Anderson (6 points, 4 assists). You'd rather have the team that you're going to have in the playoffs [on the floor]. But that's the league. [Expletive] happens. What are you going to do?"