MILWAUKEE — The winner of today's game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers will win the Eastern Conference finals.
If Allen Iverson plays--and he says he will--and plays well for the 76ers and Philadelphia wins to tie the series at two games apiece, the Bucks are done. The 76ers will take great heart from their hobbled star and will win Wednesday night in Philadelphia and probably Friday night at Milwaukee.
If the Bucks win today, they will have beaten the 76ers with Iverson on the court. It will be a huge boost of confidence for Milwaukee, which keeps hearing about how its defense isn't good enough and how gutty the 76ers are with Iverson hurt, with another starter, George Lynch, missing the whole series and on and on.
The Bucks will know that whatever Philadelphia gets today from Iverson is about all the 76ers can offer. And Milwaukee will be ahead, three games to one, in the best-of-seven series; only six teams in NBA history have won a series after being down 3-1. The 76ers won't be No. 7, not with Iverson hurting as much as he is.
And so the mind games went Sunday.
Milwaukee Coach George Karl said several times that he was tired of hearing about the injured Philadelphia players. Karl noted that Buck guard Sam Cassell is wearing a flak jacket to protect injured ribs and that, at this point of the season, everybody is hurt somehow.
Philadelphia Coach Larry Brown was smiling and eager for practice. Matt Geiger, a reserve Philadelphia center, has been out much of the season because of quadriceps tendinitis. But Geiger dressed and played well in Game 1 of this series. He was back on the bench in Game 2 and came to the Bradley Center for Saturday's Game 3 in street clothes, which surprised Brown.
"Matt shaved his head, he had therapy, a rubdown and an adjustment. The only thing he didn't have was a pedicure, so I don't know. I have no idea with Matt," Brown said, half disgusted, half amused.
Iverson was taking jump shots and telling anybody who listened how much he admired his teammates, the bedraggled crew that lost, 80-74, to the Bucks Saturday.
"I could hardly wait for them to come back to the hotel," said Iverson, who had stayed in his room having therapy and conniption fits while watching Todd MacCulloch and Jumaine Jones play with both skill and intensity that no one quite knew they had. "I wanted to hop in a cab and come be with them.
"I know this. I may not feel so much better yet but as long as I can run up and down the court, I'll be all right and I'll be there. I can't stand to watch again."
Meanwhile, the Bucks were congratulating themselves on playing good defense and withstanding Saturday's oddly paced game. Glenn Robinson said the Bucks were "proud of how we didn't let all the stuff the Sixers tried bother us. We kept playing our game and didn't let Iverson not being there get into our heads."
All this talk was interesting. There has been no rhythm to this series yet. Whatever happens today will set the rhythm and both teams acknowledged that.
"This is as close to a must win as we're going to have," Brown said.
What was also interesting is what has been missing. There has been no mention of the Lakers. There has been no talk of what comes next for whichever team wins this series.
You don't hear anybody speaking about Shaq and Kobe. Nothing about how bad the Spurs look and how the Spurs are surely better than the 76ers or Bucks.
One wonders what was going through the minds of the Bucks and 76ers Sunday afternoon as they watched the Lakers dismantle the Spurs. Help? Surrender?
Of course, athletes don't think that way. Players don't let their minds wander into the territory where they would understand that whatever they do won't matter. The 76ers and Bucks can't let themselves believe that the best they can hope for this year is to be Eastern Conference champions.
There is no disgrace in that. It is reality and reality isn't so bad. And today's loser can console itself with another reality: that there will be only four games played in the finals. And today's winner will soon be a loser.
Philadelphia vs. Milwaukee
Bucks lead best-of-seven series, 2-1
Today at Milwaukee, 2:30 p.m.
Diane Pucin can be reached at email@example.com.