PHILADELPHIA - Of all the unlikely scenes that have developed around the Philadelphia 76ers during this wildly improbable season, the one hardly anyone outside the Sixers' locker room could have expected presented itself late last night in Philadelphia's 108-91 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals.
The scene was the usual coach hugging his star player in the midst of a title run, but then, nothing about Larry Brown and Allen Iverson is usual.
Brown, the peripatetic coach and basketball lifer with the perpetual hangdog look, and Iverson, the rap star wanna-be with the troubled past, made for a strange pairing throughout the season, but they combined to get the Sixers back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1983. Game 1 against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers is Wednesday night.
Iverson, the league's regular-season Most Valuable Player, was brilliant in the biggest game of his five-year career, pouring in 44 points on 17-for-33 shooting from the field, and adding seven assists and six rebounds.
The only thing Iverson didn't get last night was the mark for most points by an individual in a seventh game, missing former Boston Celtics guard Sam Jones' 47 in 1963, but he gave the Sixers all they needed.
"I didn't try to put a lot of pressure on myself. I understand that I go on the floor with four other guys. Without my teammates, none of this would have been possible," Iverson said.
Brown and Iverson, who nearly parted ways last summer when the coach tried to trade the player, have found a rapprochement forged by winning, as they head to their first championship series.
"You guys know how this marriage has been," Brown said. "I couldn't have scripted it any better, to see his growth as a person. Forget about the basketball, for we all knew he had great talent. He's just developed so much as a human being and a teammate. I think that the fact that he's played with the injuries that he's had to play with and he's stood up and had performances that's he's had is just incredible."
Said Iverson: "We have a great leader. When all those things happened, we had him to listen to. He led us all the way. I had the opportunity to change everything around just by doing the little things. I never approached this as a business, which it is. When you work hard, good things happen. Obviously so, since we're going to the Finals."
The Bucks, who held off a furious Philadelphia comeback in the fourth quarter of Game 6, were never seriously in the running last night. Iverson, with help from center Dikembe Mutombo (23 points, 19 rebounds, seven blocks), set the pace early with 21 points in the first half.
Ray Allen, who torched Philadelphia for 41 points Friday, had 26 points, but was slowed late in the game with a knee bruise that hampered any chance Milwaukee had of getting back in the game.
Iverson's pair of three-pointers from opposite sides of the floor came in the midst of an 18-2 run midway through the second quarter, boosting the Sixers from a nine-point hole at the start of the period to a seven-point lead with 5:55 to go in the half.
In what has become the norm this season for the Sixers, they got a big contribution from reserve forward Raja Bell, who scored 10 points - all in the second quarter, bringing a badly needed infusion of energy and offense.
Bell, who signed with the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Skyforce of the International Basketball League, but didn't play there, joined the Philadelphia roster on April 6 on a 10-day contract, then signed to a multi-year deal when that expired.
He had played only four minutes in the first two playoff rounds against Toronto and Indiana, and had gotten in only seven minutes in this series, until Friday night's Game 6. There, he scored eight points in the second half as the Sixers frantically tried to make up a 33-point deficit, whittling the Bucks' lead down to 10 in the fourth quarter.
'This was always a dream," Bell said. "I had some setbacks, some potholes in the road, but I tried to persevere through that and kept working hard. Larry Brown and [general manager] Billy King brought me in and gave me a chance, and I'm grateful to them for that."
Said Iverson: "The whole game changed when Raja Bell came in. He did so many things. I just went in and asked Coach where did he get him from. He pounded on his heart, meaning Raja plays with heart. I'm so proud to be his teammate."
No doubt Bell and Brown and the rest of the Sixers feel similarly about Iverson.