Allen Iverson Retirement: Top 10 Games of 'The Answer's' Career

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 30, 2013

Allen Iverson Retirement: Top 10 Games of 'The Answer's' Career

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    Although Allen Iverson hasn't played in the NBA since 2010, and hasn't even played professional basketball since leaving the Turkish league in 2011, he refused to close the door on his playing career.

    But reality has finally settled in for the dynamic scorer known simply as "The Answer."

    This is more than just the end of an era. It's the last scene for one of the modern day basketball world's greatest tragedies.

    Allen Iverson, a first-ballot Hall of Fame talent, completely erased from the NBA landscape. Comeback plans officially scrapped, replaced by both the finality and uncertainty of retirement.

    His legend, mythical in nature even to those of us fortunate enough to have witnessed it, is now forever tied to an infamous sound byte as recognizable as his devastating crossover.

    As odd as it seemed to him at the time, it's equally perplexing now to someone who watched his meteoric rise through the superstar ranks. We're not talking about his 914 career regular-season games or 24,368 career points. We're talking about practice.

    Frankly, it's time to change the conversation. 

    Let's talk about Iverson's heroic on-court performances. Let's relive each of the 10 greatest games in his legendary NBA career.

10. The Crossover Heard 'Round the World

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    March 12, 1997 looked like a day that Philadelphia 76ers fans would want to forget. Sixteen years later, though, it remains one of the most memorable moments in recent hoops history.

    On one side of the floor stood the mighty Chicago Bulls. Phil Jackson's supercharged roster was less than 12 months removed from its fourth title of the decade and looked like it was headed for a fifth as it entered the contest with a 54-8 record.

    On the other end were the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, losers of 45 of their first 61 games.

    The game still packed some promise, though, as Allen Iverson, the top choice of the 1996 draft, had the chance to put his talents to the test against the game's best. Late in the contest, he found himself isolated at the top of the key against Michael Jordan, even then already considered an all-time great.

    "I'll never forget coming off a screen and him switching and [coach] Phil Jackson hollering his name, telling him to switch out on me," Iverson said via Mark Perner of the Daily News. "A lot of guys, when you see guys that you kinda looked up to, they kinda shy away from the challenge. And I just took it on."

    As Philly fans climbed out of their seats, Iverson tested Jordan with a little crossover to gauge his reaction. After Jordan bit on the mini-move, Iverson knew he had him at his mercy. He waited for Jordan to recover, then rocked him with a violent crossover to his right and calmly buried a 20-foot jumper over the flailing great one.

    That moment still stands as the lasting image from that night, but Iverson's brilliance shined throughout the contest. Though his Sixers fell 108-104, the rookie was nothing short of majestic. He scored a game-high 37 points, shooting 15-of-23 from the field and 5-of-8 from deep. 

9. Game 7, 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals

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    Iverson's first four seasons in the league produced plenty of excitement, but ultimately yielded the undermanned 76ers nothing more than a pair of first-round series wins. He'd seemingly gotten everything he could out of an otherwise lottery-bound roster if not for his presence.

    But all of that changed in his magical, MVP 2000-01 season. 

    He wasn't the best player on the 76ers that season; he was the 76ers. He captured his second of four scoring titles that year and his 31.1 points a night were an astounding 18.7 more than that of his closest teammate (Theo Ratliff, 12.4).

    He was the best one-man show in the business, but one-man shows typically don't enjoy a prolonged postseason run. The Toronto Raptors, paced by their own walking highlight reel in Vince Carter, looked to keep that pattern alive.

    After climbing out to a 2-1 series lead, the Raptors survived consecutive defeats by capturing a crucial 101-89 win in Game 6.

    It was win-or-go home for both sides in Game 7, and Iverson wasn't ready to let his miraculous season come to a close.

    The Raptors weren't going to let Iverson beat them by himself, and their collective defensive effort took its toll. Iverson scored 21 points in the game, but shot a woeful 8-of-27 from the field.

    But he did something the basketball world didn't think could be done: he trusted his teammates, the same ones that had played more observer roles than participants throughout the season. Iverson tossed out 16 assists, against just four turnovers, while playing every second of Philly's season-saving 88-87 win.

8. 2001 NBA All-Star Game

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    It took Iverson four seasons to crack the All-Star ranks, but once he got there he put a stranglehold on his roster spot. After that first election, he would be selected for each of the next 10 All-Star Games.

    With a body of work of this size, he had more than his fair share of mind-boggling moments at basketball's biggest exhibition game. But none of them solidified his legacy, none spoke better of his unwavering competitiveness than the 2001 All-Star Game.

    Michael Jordan had left the East's roster in 1998 and wouldn't return until 2002. The East needed to find a new hero and quickly.

    The West, led by a world-class starting five of Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber and Kevin Garnett, surged out of the gate. After one quarter, the West held a commanding 30-17 lead.

    The two sides traded blows in the second period, but the West reasserted themselves in the third and had a 21-point lead with only nine minutes of regulation.

    Then something unbelievable happened. Iverson happened.

    The scoring savant poured in 15 of his game-high 25 points over those final nine minutes. Assisted by a pair of clutch triples from Stephon Marbury and an errant attempt on a potential game-winner by Duncan, the East emerged with an incredible 111-110 victory.

    His game-saving effort earned Iverson MVP honors, something he'd recapture in the mid-season classic four years later.

7. A.I. Scores 50 as Rookie

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    Even though he hadn't yet played a full season in the league, Iverson had already put the league's ranking superstars on notice.

    In the three games leading up to this late-season showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he poured in a staggering 128 total points.

    Somehow he still managed to find a way to raise the bar on that night.

    The 76ers racked up 118 points in regulation, ultimately seven fewer than the Cavaliers, despite having only two players finish with more than 11 points. 

    One of them was Jerry Stackhouse, whose 20-point effort was anything but efficient. He converted just five of his 15 shots from the field, none of his three long-range looks, salvaging whatever he could of his stat line with a 10-of-11 showing at the foul line.

    The other was Iverson, who was forced into the unenviable task of creating his own looks out of something that faintly resembled a spread offense. This wasn't a strategic ploy of surrounding him with floor spacers and scorers; this was simply giving Iverson the rock and getting the heck out of his way.

    Incredibly, it almost worked. He fired up 32 shots from the field—15 more than anyone else in the game—and still managed a 53.1 percent shooting night. He was just as active from distance, letting nine shots fly from beyond the arc, and still just as effective, hitting five of them.

    His effort hardly went unnoticed. His final stat line jumped off the page for his 50 points, making him the second-youngest player at the time to score that many points in an NBA game. After two more games of strong shooting, Iverson became the first rookie in league history to score 40-plus points in five straight games.

6. Game 3, Opening Round of 1999 Playoffs

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    After two empty seasons to start his career, Iverson willed the 76ers into the postseason during his third year.

    There the 28-win team from Philly was matched up with Anfernee Hardaway's 33-win Orlando Magic squad, the Eastern Conference's third seed in the strike-shortened season.

    After splitting the opening two games in Orlando—Iverson had 30 points in the Game 1 win, only 13 in the loss in Game 2—Iverson finally had the honor of bringing Philly fans their first playoff game since 1991.

    The magnitude of the moment wasn't lost on the Georgetown product. "I was so excited that even when I was just standing there I wanted to be moving," he said, via the Los Angeles Times"Even during the timeouts, I just couldn't stand still."

    That extra pep in his step was evident early and often. He either played the game at normal speed while the other players were stuck in slow motion, or coach Larry Brown had found Iverson's fast-forward button.

    By the time the final buzzer sounded signaling Philadelphia's 97-85 win, Iverson had topped the 30-point for the second time in three playoff chances (33 points to be exact).

    On the defensive end of the floor, though, he left his biggest imprint on the game. He swiped an NBA playoff-record 10 steals and the 6'0" guard added a pair of blocks to his stat line.

    Two nights later Iverson propelled his team to the Eastern Conference semifinals with 37 points and nine assists in the first closeout game of his NBA career.

5. Game 5, 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals

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    Iverson's smooth handles and soft touch around the basket made him an opponent's nightmare regardless of how he shot outside the lane.

    On nights when his three-ball was locked in, though, he was virtually unguardable. May 16, 2001, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, was one of those nights.

    There was no question of whether he was headed for a big night. He scored 12 points in the game's first nine-plus minutes. The only question was where he would end up.

    The one thing threatening to derail a gaudy stat sheet was a Toronto Raptors squad, which ended up no-showing. Vince Carter's squad sleepwalked out of the gate and sat idly by as Iverson and Co. raced out to a 33-12 lead after the first quarter.

    Toronto eventually snapped out of its slumber, but not before the game had already been decided. Thankfully Larry Brown was just as interested as the rest of us to see what Iverson had in the works—that, or he simply had no trust in his reserves—and he let the reigning MVP wreak havoc for 43 captivating minutes.

    Iverson made the most of that unexpectedly long leash and ripped the Raptors for 52 points. He buried 21-of-32 from the field and knocked down eight of his 14 looks from distance. He also added seven assists, against only one turnover, four steals and a pair of rebounds.

4. The Big 6-0

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    If you missed Iverson's gem on Feb. 12, 2005, then you missed what then-Philly coach Jim O'Brien called "the greatest performance I've ever witnessed," via ESPN.com.

    Even the 76ers fans, who by this time had taken in more than eight years of Iverson's greatness, knew that this was something special.

    Looking back, anyone who managed to catch this classic was incredibly fortunate. Neither the 76ers nor the Orlando Magic were particularly strong teams—both entered the night hovering right around the .500 mark—and outside of Iverson, the game severely lacked for excitement. Philly had a nine-point lead after the first, an 18-point lead by halftime and rolled to a comfortable 112-99 home win.

    But this had nothing to do with the two teams in action or the nine other players on the floor. This was Iverson's night, and a magnificent one at that.

    He erupted for a career-high 60 points, shooting 17-of-36 from the field and converting 24 of his 27 chances from the foul line. Somehow he managed to find enough time to also dish out six assists in his 42 minutes, while adding five steals, four boards and a block.

3. Game 1, 2003 Opening Round

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    The 2003 postseason was one that offered redemption for Iverson's 76ers.

    After their remarkable run to the 2001 NBA Finals, the sixth-seeded 76ers ran out of magic in a tough, five-game series loss to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2002 playoffs.

    A 48-win season gave Philadelphia a more favorable postseason seed, fourth in the Eastern Conference, but couldn't keep them from an opening round matchup against a scrappy New Orleans Hornets team led by Jamal Mashburn and Baron Davis.

    To say Iverson got meager support from his teammates would be incredibly generous. Eric Snow (15 points) and reserve Aaron McKie (12) were the only other Sixers to score more than five points.

    Yet Philadelphia managed to scratch out a 98-90 win due to Iverson's playoff career-high 55-point outburst.

    It was one of those games where "The Answer" had the solution for all of the defense's problems. He shot 21-of-32 from the field, 3-of-5 from three and 10-of-11 at the free-throw line. He played 47 minutes, dished out eight assists, snagged four rebounds and swiped two steals along the way.

    Coach Larry Brown, a firsthand witness to so many of Iverson's memorable moments, called it "his best ever, by far," via Sports Illustrated.

2. Game 7, 2001 Eastern Conference Finals

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    No amount of preparation could have readied Iverson for what he was about to experience on June 3, 2001.

    He'd carried the 76ers further than they had been throughout his four-plus-year tenure. As Philly traded wins with the Milwaukee Bucks over the first six games of the Eastern Conference Finals, Iverson was thrust back under the Game 7 spotlight for only the second time in his career.

    Even that first experience offered little that Iverson could carry with him into this contest, as a rough shooting night forced him into an uncharacteristically generous run as a distributor. Another turn as a table-setter wasn't going to cut it. If the 76ers were going to survive this game, they'd need Iverson the scorer.

    When Iverson scored the game's first points on a sweet 22-footer, Philadelphia had hope. After he added a 20-footer just three trips later, the Sixers potentially had something far greater.

    Philly raced out to an early 8-2 lead, but Iverson's mortality appeared at the most inopportune time. He missed four of his next five attempts, and Milwaukee seized the momentum and built a 26-21 lead with 1:10 left in the first quarter.

    Over the next six-plus minutes, Iverson added a pair of makes at the rim and split a pair of free-throw attempts. Midway through the second quarter, though, he started really finding his rhythm. He slithered his way to another point-blank basket and after a layup from Raja Bell, he added a pair of cold-blooded triples. He misfired on a heat-check 27-footer on the next trip, but buried a jumper from 19 feet the next time down the floor.

    He poured in 13 points in the second as Philly turned a 26-25 first-quarter deficit into a 56-50 halftime lead. His hot hand found its way out of the locker room, and the 76ers stretched that advantage to 82-71 heading into the fourth thanks in no small part to Iverson's 14 third-quarter points.

    The 76ers cruised to a 108-91 series-clinching win and punched their first NBA Finals ticket in nearly 20 years. Iverson's legend continued to grow, as he finished the night with 44 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals.

1. Game 1, 2001 NBA Finals

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    In the heirarchy of all-time mismatches, it goes "Insert Conference Here" vs. the SEC in college football bowl games, David vs. Goliath and Iverson's 76ers vs. the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals. In that order.

    Phil Jackson's Lakers, the reigning champs, entered this series riding a 19-game winning streak, 11 of which came during their three-round sprint through a loaded Western Conference. In successive rounds, they swept Rasheed Wallace's Portland Trail Blazers, Chris Webber's Sacramento Kings and Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs.

    As for Iverson's 76ers, well, they were lucky to still be standing. They dropped one game to the Indiana Pacers in the opening round, then three each in the next two series against the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks.

    According to ESPN's Chris Sheridan, Lakers fans were chanting "sweep" 30 minutes before Game 1 even tipped off. It wasn't so much arrogance as it was a simple understanding of the two teams on the floor. L.A. had a championship team, rife with Hall of Fame talents (Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant) and championship experience. Philly had Iverson.

    But for one night, for those 52 minutes, Iverson was enough. 

    Less than nine minutes into the game, the Lakers had already built a 21-9 lead. By halftime, though, Iverson had completely pulled all the attention away from the defending champs as he entered intermission with 30 points and his team nursing a 56-50 lead.

    Out of the break, L.A. focused solely on stopping the undersized scorer. Iverson scored just 11 points over the next 24 minutes, none in the final nine minutes of regulation.

    Thanks to Eric Snow's game-tying layup at the 1:38 mark of the fourth, though, Iverson would get his chance at redemption. Neither team scored again in the quarter, so an extra session was needed to untie this 94-94 knot.

    L.A. scored the first five points of overtime, but Philly answered with a 7-0 run of its own to take a 101-99 lead with 1:01 remaining.

    After a Rick Fox turnover, Iverson put this game on ice and Lakers' guard Tyronn Lue on the unfortunate end of the game's most unforgettable image. A stepback dribble gave Iverson enough space to fire a 16-footer from the corner that drew nothing but net. Lue slipped and fell to the floor, and Iverson took two slow, calculated steps over him before heading back to the other end.

    The 76ers escaped with a 107-101 win, and Iverson, who finished with 48 points, six assists, five steals and five boards, relished the chance to serve crow to all of the doubters after the game.

    "Big-time underdogs," he said, via Sheridan. "I'm glad nobody bet their life on it because they'd be dead now."