|Riddle me this: What's the Answer?|
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
For a little guy with an erratic shooting touch, Allen Iverson causes a lot of migraines for opposing coaches. Page 2 sent NBA diarist Charley Rosen to Game 2 of the 76ers-Hornets playoff series to see if he could devise a strategy or two for stopping AI. He came up with 14. However, if you want to try any of them, be aware that Page 2 disavows all responsibility for the results.
PHILADELPHIA -- Is there an answer for "The Answer?" Can he be stopped? Contained? At the very least, can he be made uncomfortable? Or is Allen Iverson like a terrier with a jaw-lock on somebody's leg. Is the only way to stop him to knock him out?
The resolutions to all of these questions are more chimerical than ever because of Iverson's increasing maturity. Under the guidance of Larry Brown, AI has moderated his once-frantic, and often reckless, pace. Instead of his earlier stubbornness and headstrong play, he's now sizing up defenses and giving every offensive sequence (particularly screen/rolls) a chance to develop.
And whereas his jumper used to be semi-accurate only when he pulled up his dribble and fired away, he's lately become more adept at catching and shooting. Also, as quick as he is, he is more explosive than ever before.
That's why at a mere 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, Iverson is capable of dominating a ball game.
In truth, Iverson is so quick, so tough, and so multi-talented that no single strategy will minimize his effectiveness. Different teams try different tactics depending upon the proclivities of the opposing coaches and their available personnel.
Let us, then, count those ways:
1. The best way to neutralize Iverson is to keep the ball out of his hands. Small guards equipped with genetic jet-speed can try to overplay and deny him the ball, as the Lakers' Tyrone Lue did in the 2001 Championship Series. Yet because of the scarcity of such hot-footed backcourtsmen (San Antonio's combo of Tony Parker and Speedy Claxton is the exception that proves the rule), Iverson usually receives the ball when and where he wishes.
2. Double-teaming Iverson will almost certainly force him to give up the ball. The trouble here is that he frequently receives it a step above the 3-point line and in the middle of the court. This means that Iverson's sightlines to both his left and his right are so good that a relatively short pass generally finds an unguarded teammate.
A sideline double-team, however, allows the defense to cover the short passes, zone the weak side and force Iverson to throw long crosscourt passes. The longer a pass is in the air, the easier it can be intercepted. In any event, teams who choose to two-time Iverson are advised to send a big guard or small forward after him and reduce his field of vision.
4. Force him sideline/baseline and jump him with a big man. But that's risky business because it can leave a large (if temporary) gap in the bosom of the defense.
5. With Eric Snow as the Sixers' point guard, AI often runs a variety of off-the-ball patterns to create enough space to receive a pass and go to work. Typically, these patterns include moves called, in the current jargon, baseline "snakes," wherein he utilizes a pair of picks in whatever sequences he desires. Some teams will "top" these picks, then try to jump into the passing lane -- another risky tactic that usually results in a wide-open look for AI.
Should Iverson's defender closely follow him through the picks (a maneuver called "tail-gating"), the defensive biggies must step out to discourage him from curling into an open space. This step-out must be forceful, even antagonistic. If the big man must commit a foul, the contact should inflict as much pain as possible.
Occasionally, Iverson's path around these baseline picks will be blocked (or "bucked") by his defender in hope of disrupting the play's timing. This is the most dangerous strategy of all because it is particularly vulnerable to Iverson's ability to reverse field and go back-door.
The common ground here is the attempt to make him work as hard as possible to get where he wants to go.
6. When Iverson is presented with an S/R situation, the defense has several options. It can go under the pick and let him shoot (see No. 1). It can have the big man show hard on the other side of the screen to delay Iverson until his man catches up (Bo Outlaw does this better than anyone), but then the other three defenders must rotate in a hurry so the picker can't roll easily toward the hoop. Or it simply can double Iverson with the big man and then form a zone in the direction AI is moving, thereby forcing him to make a quick about-face reversal pass.
7. Play a zone, preferably a 2-3 alignment pointed at Iverson to prevent him from darting between (or "splitting") the two backcourt defenders.
8. Be extremely physical. Bang him to the floor whenever possible and hope the refs don't whistle every single foul. The trouble here is that Iverson is as shifty as a running back, and just as hard to nail straight-on. And no matter how hard he's hit (usually one solid shot per game), he will always jump back up and hit the same hole as fearlessly as before.
9. Whenever Iverson releases a long jumper, his defender immediately takes off downcourt -- called "running out." In theory, this puts added pressure on Iverson to make the shot, possibly compromising his natural stroke because a miss followed by a defensive rebound and a long pass can produce an unguarded layup at the other end. Even though this maneuver is rarely used, it can be highly effective.
10. Push him left toward a prearranged help spot. As always, the helper should be big and long.
11. One successful ploy is to defend Iverson with a bigger, longer player such as the quick-footed Kobe Bryant or a young Stacey Augmon. The idea is to counter Iverson's jab step, a quick and convincing step toward the basket that invariably causes the defender to retreat and allows AI to step back and unleash his jumper.
Tall, long-armed defenders can buy Iverson's fake and still recover to challenge the shot. Larry Brown admits that this is the most effective way to discomfort Iverson. Fortunately for the Sixers, however, Augmon is over the hill and Kobe-like defenders are few and far between.
12. According to Paul Silas, Iverson might best be controlled with an old-timey strategy.
Like Nos. 9 and 11, this is heartily recommended.
13. Make Iverson work to the max on defense to sap his energy and possibly get him into foul trouble. Iso him and post him up inside.
14. Mix and match every defensive possibility to keep Iverson (and the Sixers) guessing. Don't stay with one technique long enough for Iverson to get comfortable, and save the most effective tactic for the end-game.
Yet one of Iverson's teammates, Aaron McKie, swears that none of the above will inhibit AI's ability to control a ball game.
"The only way to neutralize Iverson," says McKie, "is to triple-team him."
So perhaps the only real answer to 'The Answer' is to propose another question, one as mystical and elusive as a Zen koan. This: If the question is unaskable and unanswerable, does either the question or the answer truly exist?
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."