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June 05, 2015

Finally in perfect role, Iguodala shuts down LeBron in Game 1

The former Sixer finds himself as a very important part of the NBA Finals

Andre Iguodala didn’t play for the Eagles, so it wasn’t as if the phone lines at WIP were filled with people looking to complain about him. Still, he served as the symbol of frustration for an era of Sixers basketball that was characterized by three first-round playoff exits and one second-round exit that should’ve been a first-round exit.

An elite defensive player and playmaker at the small forward position during his prime, Iguodala was the main reason the Sixers were winning about 40 games per year and consistently making the playoffs. But once the game slowed down in the playoffs and the competition jumped up a few notches, what many Philadelphia sports fans remember about Iguodala are the painful isolations and bricked jumpers.

As a quick interlude, they weren’t all bricks. Iguodala hit his share of clutch playoff daggers in a Sixers uniform:

The main point still stands, though: Iguodala wasn’t a top scoring option on an elite team, and the front office wasn’t able to acquire the type of talent that would allow his skill set to be appreciated on both a local and national stage.

Later in his career, he’s found a perfect role on that type of team:

LeBron James took a bunch of shots in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, but he managed to score 44 points despite not receiving much help at all from his teammates. Heading into the series, one of the major talking points was, “Who is going to guard LeBron?” With the game on the line and the ball in the best player on the planet’s hands, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr answered that question: Andre Iguodala.

Iggy (even though he hates that nickname) forced LeBron into a low-percentage step-back jumper that barely grazed the iron, and the Dubs took the all-important first game of the NBA Finals.

"I thought he was fantastic," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told reporters about Iguodala. "Andre is one of the smartest defenders I've ever seen. He understands angles, he understands where everybody is on the floor.

"You know, it's funny to say when a guy (James) gets 44 points that the defender did a really good job, but I thought Andre did extremely well. He made LeBron take some tough shots.”

I’ve seen very few basketball players deny the ball on the wing better than Iguodala. He didn’t always get along with Doug Collins in Philly, but the head coach deployed his elite wing defender on the other team’s best player, giving him very little help a la Revis Island. The Sixers were able to build a top-flight defense (3rd in defensive efficiency in 2011-12, his final season) due to that arrangement.

The same level of individual defense was on display last night at an absolutely raucous “Roaracle Arena” and for the whole world to see. Because basketball stats are getting better and better, we actually have the breakdown of Iguodala guarding LeBron vs. everybody else guarding LeBron:

If you can get Iguodala to talk about defense, it’s apparent that he has a PhD-level understanding of the subject. On NBA TV after the game, he spoke about his mindset going up against a guy like LeBron, even crediting former Sixers teammate and current Temple assistant coach Aaron McKie. From Dan Devine of Ball Don’t Lie:

"I learned this early in my career from real vets — like, Aaron McKie was my real vet, he played against Kobe [Bryant] in the Finals in 2001 with Philly," Iguodala said during an NBA TV interview after the game. "He would always say, 'Listen, you're not going to stop these guys. These guys are going to get their points. People come to see them play. They're going to get to the foul line. They're going to get in rhythm every single night. The key to it is making it as hard for them as possible, making them take tough jump shots, contest everything and hopefully they'll miss.

"And, every once in a while," he added, "try to get a steal, try to get a tip. Throw them off-rhythm."

So there you have it. After a career of being the number one option on middling teams in Philly, Andre Iguodala is now playing an important role on a juggernaut three wins away from a title. And he might’ve the best player on the floor in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. How about that?

Reuters contributed to this post.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann