FROM:   Jerry Bembry at Raptors/Sixers
DATE:   Monday, May 7


When you're 36 years old, wearing a headband seems like a forced effort to look young. But there was nothing forced about the way Dell Curry released his jump shot in the opening game of the Eastern Conference semifinals. And although the series is being promoted as a battle between Allen Iverson and Vince Carter, it was Curry's sweet stroke that helped the Raptors take homecourt advantage against the top-seeded Sixers with a 96-93 win on Sunday.


Yes, Iverson scored a game-high 36 points and Carter led Toronto with 35 (and an impressive seven assists). But this is a series that will be determined by role players -- and Curry played his role to perfection, scoring 20 points while hitting seven of 12 shots (including four of nine three pointers).

Dell Curry? If you blinked, you missed his cameo appearance in the first round, when he averaged only 4.4 points over 11.8 minutes. So why was Curry on the court for 34 minutes in Game 1 against the Sixers? First of all, he can always be a big factor because he has a quick release and is one of the best catch-and-shoot marksmen in the NBA.

And against a Philly team that plays a scrambling, aggressive-help defense, the style was perfect: Curry got off open looks because of his ability to get his shot off before the defense rotated to him. "For Dell to get 20 points on such few shots in a meaningful game was very big," said Sixers coach Larry Brown. "You can't give a jump shooter like him open shots."

And by hitting those open looks, the Sixers were forced to play up on Curry. Which, in effect, gave Carter more room to drive to the basket as he continued his aggressive play of late.

Don't sleep on the Raptors. This is a team that is growing up before the eyes of basketball fans -- which is why I picked them to win the series.

Just over a week ago they appeared a team without a clue (consider Carter's poor shooting) or a chance (Charles Oakley's criticism of Carter threatened team harmony).

But Carter's regular-season swagger has returned, his teammates are feeding off of his rediscovered touch and Lenny Wilkens is doing a brilliant job coaching. Wilkens played Eric Montross off the bench over Jerome Williams, knowing that Montross' size would match up better against Dikembe Mutombo. And while Curry's major minutes came partially because Chris Childs got into foul trouble, the move still makes Wilkens look like a genius.

Curry has had better-scoring playoff games: in 1993 with Charlotte, he ripped Boston for 27 points. But the former baseball draftee (as a pitcher at Virginia Tech, Curry was selected in the 14th round of the 1985 draft by the Orioles), said yesterday's outing was "my best playoff game by far." And it came at an opportune time, putting the Raptors in the driver's seat against the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Jerry Bembry is covering the NBA playoffs for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at jerry.bembry@espnmag.com.