PHILADELPHIA - Forget about the 43 points Orlando's Tracy McGrady scored on Detroit or the 39 Kobe Bryant of the Lakers got on Minnesota yesterday. They were only the warmup acts.
Philadelphia superstar Allen Iverson lit up New Orleans for a franchise playoff-high 55 points last night as the 76ers held off the Hornets, 98-90, to take a 1-0 lead in this best-of-7 first-round series.
Iverson, who averaged 32.3 points against New Orleans during the season, shot 21-for-32, was 10-for-11 from the line, made 3-of-5 three-pointers and had eight assists. His previous playoff high was 54, set here May 9, 2001, against Toronto.
"It's the best feeling in the world," Iverson said. "You know the fans are enjoying it. They might go out of this, remember the name 'Allen Iverson' forever.
"I got into one of those rhythms where the basket looks like an ocean. I just was just throwing rocks in. I hit some free throws in the first quarter, A lot of time, when my free throws go, my jumper gets off. The second half, that's when I was feeling it."
Iverson joined Michael Jordan, Rick Barry, Charles Barkley, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor as the only players to score 55 or more in a playoff game. Jordan holds the NBA record of 63.
"He was on fire," Hornets coach Paul Silas said. "Anytime a guy like that is on fire, not much you can do except take the ball out of his hands. That's right up there with Michael's 63. You name it."
Iverson, who scored 25 points in the first half, shot 9-for-11 and scored 20 points in the fourth quarter, when the Sixers broke open a game they led 70-68 entering the period.
The crowd showed its appreciation, chanting, "MVP, MVP, MVP" early in the third quarter. The towel-waving fans could appreciate how much Iverson means to this team, especially in a game where Derrick Coleman and Keith Van Horn, two of Philadelphia's front-court starters, combined to shoot just 2-for-12 and guard Eric Snow was 3-for-13.
"It's all about what we need to get over the hump," Iverson said. "I wouldn't want to try to shoot as much, or try to score as many points as I scored, night in and night out. But when guys are struggling, I have to pick up the slack. And that's what I expect them to do when I'm struggling."
Forward Jamal Masburn, who has been a bad matchup for the Sixers all season long, led New Orleans with 28 points, but the Hornets had no answers for the Answer.
Iverson was just too much for David Wesley, backup Kenny Anderson and 6-7 Stacy Augmon or whomever else Silas tried on him. Wesley has had a good season for the Hornets, averaging 16.8 points. But he seems to turn into Jell-O whenever he has to guard Iverson.
The Hornets entered the playoffs on a roll. They were 22-11 after the All-Star break, had won their last five regular-season games and looked like they might be a sleeper to win the Eastern Conference. Especially since all their key players, including point guard Baron Davis - who returned after missing close to two months with knee surgery - were on the floor again.
Last night, it was obvious Davis, who scored just 10 points, was not 100%, but the Hornets managed to throw a scare into the Sixers, cutting a nine-point deficit down to size when Mashburn scored 10 of his points in the third quarter.
But Iverson had the final say down the stretch, nailing two consecutive threes to give the Sixers a 92-84 lead with 3:00 to play.