"Its not [about being] a thief," said Wolves coach Kurt Rambis of his team's exciting overtime victory over the Sixers, "We earned it." True, true, but questions of deservedness might be a bit less pertinent if the Wolves could avoid doing things like shooting 29% and turning the ball over seven times in a quarter (the first), slipping into 20-point first half hole and hanging their heads as if they'd given up the ghost.
Still, they made amends in the third quarter, in which they ran the floor, got to the basket and played defense like they meant it. Although much of that lovely third was a product of simply hitting the same open shots they'd earlier been bricking (Ryan Gomes was a stark example; he was 1-5 in the first half and 6-7 in the second), Jonny Flynn, with his nine assists and 29 points on only 16 shots was a major catalyst. Most importantly, said Rambis, he played intense defense and, for the most part, kept the team organized, keeping the ball moving in the half court and in transition. Their were moments where it seemed like he'd figured some things out.
Probably the saddest and least attractive facet of professional sports is the cruel way athletes age. Basketball players are in full bloom at a time when most of us are stupid and lost. By the time we've started gaining a more complete, more nuanced understanding of the things we do, started figuring out how to live, most athletes are in decline. At 34 years old, Allen Iverson should be entering the prime of his life. But instead, the gifts that have made him the most compelling player of his era have begun to escape him.
Statistically speaking, Iverson is probably not among the upper echelon of great players of this generation. Despite frequently leading the league in usage (basically, the percentage of his team's possessions that a player does something quantifiable, like shoot or get fouled or record an assist) and dominating the ball wherever he played, Iverson was always less efficient than average. Those scoring titles were won on the back of lots of games of 30 points on 31 shots. And although he usually posted pretty high assist totals, so many of those dimes came only when all of his own scoring options were exhausted and he was forced to hurl the ball out to a teammate--which teammate had been growing increasingly antsy out on the perimeter, watching seconds of shot clock drip away as A.I. did his thing, and was now forced to desperately heave one at the hoop.
But that thing he did sure was beautiful. Accidents of chance/fate had blessed him with astounding quickness and coordination, but had also conspired to give him a delicate-looking, bird-like frame. A reasonable person, staring at this 150-pound, possibly barely 6-foot dude, would assume that he had no place with the condors of the NBA, that his place was on the playgrounds and YMCA courts with all the other marvelously skilled, but genetically disenfranchised kids.
But Iverson, with his ferocious pride and deep passion, rejected that assumption. He relentlessly flung his skinny body at the basket; he nailed towering, 26-foot fadeaway threes without compunction; he crossed Michael Jordan twice on the same play, made him look like a gangly teenager:
He rejected plainly obvious physical realities with every move he made. For anyone who has ever been pained by life's essential unfairness, watching Iverson simply refuse to accept that unfairness, and refuse with such magnificent ferocity, could really stir the old heart.
But certain realities, like the one that our bodies get old and decay, are kind of hard to refute; seeing A.I. avoid coming to grips with that painful fact is pretty sad. On Monday afternoon, all the old trademarks were there: the bouncy, kinetic stride; the aggressive but supple handle; the knifing fadeaway jumper. But just enough of that impossible quickness, just enough of of the lift on his shot is gone that Iverson can't quite separate himself from his defender the way he used to. He hit only four of his 12 shots and although he did find creative ways to set up his teammates, he committed five turnovers, still dominating the ball the way he always has. Saddest of all maybe, Iverson was on the bench both for the fourth quarter's climactic moments and for the overtime. The NBA sure does not make a guy feel better about getting older.