PHILADELPHIA - Allen Iverson was on the court the last time the 76ers played in a Game 7. On June 3, 2001, he poured in 44 points and handed out 7 assists as Philadelphia hammered the Milwaukee Bucks, 108-91, to punch its ticket to the NBA Finals against the Lakers, who would take them out in five games.
This past Wednesday night, The Answer was back in the house, cupping his ear to the delight of the fans, as the Sixers surged past the Celtics, 82-75, to set up a seventh game in Boston Saturday. This time, Iverson was at Wells Fargo Center strictly as an inspirational leader, donning Lou Williams’s No. 23 jersey rather than his own No. 3.
There are no Iversons - or reasonable facsimiles - on this Sixers team, which happens to be a strength nearly as much as it is a weakness.
When Doug Collins’s team takes the floor Saturday with a trip to the Eastern finals on the line, no one knows who might lead the way. Collins just wants them to walk into the Celtics’ den - where they’ll encounter a sea of green and see all those championship banners and retired numbers in the rafters - and play without regard to what might happen. Do that, and he’ll take his chances.
“You can’t think anything about consequences,’’ said Collins, who played in one Game 7 in his stellar career - scoring 10 points in an 83-77 win over the Celtics at the Spectrum in 1977. “Go in there with confidence, be poised, play through bad stretches.
“There’s going to be ugly possessions where things are not going to go your way and you’ve got to play through it.’’
These Sixers have no illusions about what they face. But clearly they’re not shrinking from the moment, having already far exceeded expectations as a No. 8 seed. Their biggest regret remains letting the Atlantic Division - which they led for the majority of the season until the Celtics caught them in late March - slip away.
Otherwise, they’d be playing the decisive game at home. Instead they must go into the most hostile setting imaginable and try to defy the odds.
“We’re going to be prepared,’’ vowed Williams, who knocked down some key shots down the stretch in Game 6 to foil any Celtics hopes of a comeback. “Obviously, it’s going to be a madhouse in Boston. But it’s one game.
“We feel like we have the same chance they have.’’
The only current Sixers who have played in a Game 7 are power forward Elton Brand and deep subs Sam Young and former Celtic Tony Battie.
“It’s going to be tough,’’ said Brand, who has played his best ball of the playoffs the last two games, at both ends of the floor. “They’ve been through it a few times. We haven’t.
“But when our backs are against the wall, we usually rise to the occasion.’’
They proved that in Game 6, setting the stage for the franchise’s first winner-take-all game since the first round in 2002. That was the night Antoine Walker shimmied all night as he and Paul Pierce knocked down 12 3-pointers between them in a 120-87 romp over Iverson’s Sixers in Game 5.
The Sixers would love for someone to get 31 points, as A.I. did in that 2002 game. But Collins knows that’s not going to happen. For Philadelphia to win, it must play the same kind of stifling defense that squeezed the life out of the Celtics the other night.
Making a few shots along the way wouldn’t hurt, either.
“It’s going to be loud,’’ said Collins, who has never coached in a Game 7. “The other night [in Game 5], we got a little rattled during the third quarter.
“We can’t let that happen again. We can’t get away with dead minutes on the road. Not in a Game 7.’’
Following practice Friday, they headed to Boston, packing a little more luggage in the hopes they’ll go straight from there to their next playoff destination, Miami.
It sure would beat the alternative of trudging back home to start summer vacation.