When the Golden State Warriors were trailing 2-1 in the 2015 NBA Finals and all the momentum seemingly on the side of the Cleveland Cavaliers, first-year head coach Steve Kerr went to his go-to guy to stop the bleeding. And that’s exactly what do-it-all forward Andre Iguodala did.
Iguodala scored 22 points, made eight of his 15 field goals, knocked down four 3-pointers, and grabbed eight rebounds in 39 minutes in his first starting assignment of the season. He also helped the Warriors harass LeBron James into his worst shooting performance in The Finals: 20 points (he was averaging 41 through three games) and 7-for-22 from the field.
The Warriors went on to win Game 4 and never lost again in The Finals.
With Iguodala in the starting lineup, the small-ball unit accomplished two key things: it increased the tempo on offense and made the Warriors more active on defense. Cavaliers 7-foot center Timofey Mozgov was stuck guarding Iguodala and the 6-8 wingman took advantage of the space Mozgov gave him on offense by knocking down jumper after jumper.
Iguodala was arguably the Warriors’ best player in the series and deserved to be named Finals MVP. Not bad for someone who didn’t start in the regular season and is regarded as the Warriors’ fifth-best player behind Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes.
“Guarding LeBron James has to be the hardest job in basketball. After the first three games we decided to start Andre because he was by far doing the best job on LeBron, but he was also contributing in so many ways,” Kerr said. “[Cleveland’s] plan was to take Steph away and take Klay away and force Draymond and Andre to beat them, and Andre did.”
Kerr said you can argue that the Finals MVP should have gone to Curry or LeBron, but Andre winning the award was a fitting ending for Golden State squad that has prided itself in team ball and sacrifices.
“He sacrificed his starting role from the first game in the season. He had never come off the bench once in his entire career. And he sacrificed that job to make Harrison better and make our bench better, and that set the tone for our whole season. An All-Star and an Olympian said ‘OK, I’ll come off the bench.’ ”
Coming off the bench wasn’t an easy adjustment for Iguodala, who has spent the majority of his 11-year NBA career (eight in Philadelphia and one in Denver) as a starter.But when Kerr got the Warriors coaching gig he decided that what’s best for the team is for Iguodala take a back seat.
“He was the focal point [in Philadelphia]. It’s a different role for him here,” Kerr said of his fellow Arizona Wildcat. “In this series he looks like the 76ers version of Andre because he’s taking on a bigger role. He’s playing more minutes, he’s guarding LeBron, he’s also been good offensively. I just think Andre is one of those guys who rises to the occasion and embraces the challenge. He’s having a great series.”
Iguodala said not being a starter is “a lot harder than it looks,” and finding a flow coming off the bench has been the most difficult adjustment. “This is a lot different,” he said. “It took me a while to find it. I’m still trying to figure it out right now.”
Iguodala adds a different dimension to the Warriors. His versatility makes the Warriors unpredictable on offense, and his playmaking abilities from the forward spot allows Curry to play off the ball.
“That’s kinda been my game pretty much my whole life,” Iguodala said. “From a kid I was probably the tallest on the floor but never wanted to play center. I’ve always wanted to play point guard. My favorite players were Scottie Pippen, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill. Those guys have similar games. That’s just something I saw and try to do from age 6-7 years old.”
Golden State has been rotating different bodies on LeBron to try to wear down the Cavs superstar. Iguodala, Barnes, Green and Thompson have been matched up with the four-time MVP on various stages of the game, but Iguodala has easily been the most successful at holding down King James.
Iguodala has some familiarity with LeBron’s game from his time with Team USA during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He uses his length to bother LeBron’s sight line and he is strong enough to make it tough for ‘Bron to get to his post-up game. And when LeBron goes to his patented forays to the left side of the lane, Iguodala beats him to the spot and forces him to tough, contested step-back jumpers.
LeBron had a chance to win games 1 and 2 at Oracle Arena in the final seconds of regulation, but both times Iguodala stepped up and made crucial defensive stops. He forced LeBron into a difficult step-back jumper that bounced off the rim Game 1 and then he forced LeBron to miss a left-handed layup in Game 2.
“You gotta be mentally prepared more than anything,” Iguodala said of guarding James. “Not to overreact to certain things. I think that’s key. We have a scheme in place and in order for the scheme to work overall picture is 48 minutes. In the grand scheme of things you try to break him down, you try to force your will upon him, and it’s gonna take the whole game. Mentally you gotta be with it the whole night.”
“A guy like LeBron who can pass the ball, you have to see where his eyes are. He can see the whole floor. It’s just about being smart and more importantly communicate because if I can hear a guy double team I know where to funnel. We know how to rotate out of it, and it usually works for us.”
Iguodala capped his phenomenal playoff run with 25 points, five rebounds and five assists in Game 6 to close out the Cavaliers and end the 40-year NBA title drought in the Bay Area.