Season by season, game by game, minute by minute and shot by shot, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson score their points and make their point, which is: They will attack the basket with as much relentlessness and passion as anyone who's ever played the game. "With those guys it's not about X's and O's," says the San Antonio Spurs' defensive ace Bruce Bowen. "[The desire to score] is what ticks inside of them.
Bryant's body clock was positively cacophonous last weekend. In a showdown against Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers last Friday at Staples Center, the Los Angeles Lakers guard scored 48 points in a 119-93 rout, overshadowing Iverson's 31. The next night, against the intracity rival Clippers, he went for 50, 40 of them coming in the second half, as the Lakers squeezed out a 112-109 win. Bryant also had the game-winner, an awkward, going-to-his-left runner in the lane that he banked high off the glass. "I remembered one of the things my father told me," Bryant said afterward, speaking of former NBA forward Joe (Jellybean) Bryant. "When you go left, you don't have to square up." His analysis, like his shot, was reminiscent of Michael Jordan, who often found a way to describe the seemingly indescribable.
Bryant's 98-point weekend propelled him past Iverson into the NBA scoring lead--at week's end Bryant was racking up 33.7 per game, Iverson 33.1. The last player to average at least 33 points per game for a season was Jordan, whose 33.6 average in 1989-90 beat out Karl Malone, who poured in 31.0. Only once since then, in 2002-03, when the Houston Rockets' Tracy McGrady averaged 32.1 points and Bryant 30.8, have two players averaged in the 30s. Furthermore, if Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James exceeds 30 a game (at week's end he was at 30.6) and Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas bumps up his average a half-point from its current 29.5, it will be the first time since '61-62 that four players reached that threshold. That season Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points while four others were over 30: Chicago's Walt Bellamy (31.6), St. Louis's Bob Pettit (31.1) and Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson and the Lakers' Jerry West (both 30.8).
In the days before his game against the Sixers, Bryant, as disingenuous off the court as he is deadly on it, predictably pooh-poohed the notion that he and Iverson were engaged in mano a mano competition. "Oh, so this is a race?" he said sarcastically when the phrase "scoring race" came up. Then, of course, he went out and played as if he was, well, in a race, going hard to the hoop, draining all seven of his three-point shots, thumping his chest with his fist after a couple of those baskets and flashing an It's-good-to-be-the-king smile as he left the court with 3:49 remaining. That Bryant could up his absurd output just 24 hours later is mind-boggling. But then, his unmatched ability to conjure such magic on demand makes him, in the minds of many league insiders, the closest thing to a Jordan heir. Take the 62 points he scored in just three quarters during a 112-90 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 20. Infuriated by a 76-74 home loss to the Houston Rockets two nights earlier, Bryant had informed his teammates at shootaround that he was "going to handle it" that night. Asked last week how many he could have scored had he not sat out the entire fourth quarter, Bryant settled on 80. Judging from that game and the two last weekend (not mention the 27 shots per game that he's heaving, nearly 10 more than his career average), Bryant knows it's a race. And he wants to win.
Iverson denies having any interest in a transcontinental scoring duel, and, being less Machiavellian than the Lakers superstar, perhaps AI--despite throwing up 26 shots per game, nearly three more than his career average--is to be believed. "Scoring is an individual goal," Iverson said two days before the L.A. game. "[The scoring title] is something I've accomplished four times ['99, '01, '02 and '05]. It's an I've-been-there-done-that type of thing. Honestly, it would be good to see if Kobe could do it one time."