This isn’t the same Iguodala who flopped in his first playoff series as the man for the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s playing with the same aggressiveness and fearlessness that another A.I. displayed every time he stepped on the court.
The surprising Sixers are two wins away from pulling off a stunning upset over the Orlando Magic in their Eastern Conference first-round series. The often-criticized Iguodala is a major reason Philadelphia is in this position after stumbling into the playoffs with a 41-41 record.
“Andre really wants it,” Sixers coach Tony DiLeo said. “He’s really matured. You can see him out there. He’s on a mission. He’s taking it aggressive. We’re seeing him grow before our eyes. I think the people in Philly know about him, but now I think the national audience will get to see what Andre’s all about.”
Game 4 is Sunday night at the Wachovia Center. The Sixers don’t even have to win another game on the road to advance to the second round for the first time since 2003. It’s the same spot they were in last year against the Detroit Pistons, only to blow a 10-point halftime lead in Game 4 of their opening-round series and lose three straight.
That was a nightmarish series for Iguodala, who took over as the team leader after Allen Iverson was traded in December 2006. Iguodala averaged 13.2 points on just 33.3 percent shooting against the Pistons, a significant decline from his regular-season average of 19.9 points per game.
But he’s stepped up his performance in a big way against the Magic. Iguodala has averaged 23.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists in the first three games.
“The biggest thing is going through that series last year against Detroit, and they were one of the best defensive teams I’ve faced, I don’t think I played that bad,” Iguodala said. “But they focused in on me. You see other things like how to create plays. The last three games have been a good flow for me.”
Iguodala had 29 points Friday night as the Sixers beat the Magic 96-94 on Thaddeus Young’s layup with 2 seconds left. In Game 1, Iguodala swished a 22-foot jumper with 2.2 seconds remaining to lift Philadelphia to a 100-98 victory on the road.
Maybe all the harsh criticism Iguodala has heard in his five seasons in Philly still rings in his ears. Fans and media have long questioned whether Iguodala is capable of being the go-to scorer and not just a complementary player. Many wondered why the Sixers gave him a six-year, $80 million contract last summer when he was a restricted free agent and eligible to play under a one-year qualifying offer.
Whatever the motivation, Iguodala is playing like someone with something to prove.
“I’m a little more relaxed,” he said. “When the game starts at tip-off, you know what you’re going to do. You get that swagger about yourself. To be honest, I don’t think I am there yet. I’m still figuring things out and once I get there, it’s going to be trouble.”
The Magic already know they’re in trouble even if Iguodala hasn’t found his entire game just yet. Orlando cruised into the playoffs with the second-best record in franchise history at 59-23. Hardly anyone gave the sixth-seeded Sixers much of a chance against Howard and the Magic.
But Orlando has struggled defensively in the series, allowing the Sixers to shoot 50 percent from the floor. The Magic only allowed 11 opponents to shoot that well during the regular season, going 4-7 in those games.
“We have to figure out a way to guard them,” Magic guard Rafer Alston said. “We have to figure out a way to not let them get any and everything they want. We better do it quick.”
Offensively, Howard isn’t getting much help. The Sixers were content letting Howard get his points—he had 36 points in Game 3—and focused on shutting down Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Courtney Lee. The trio combined for 31 points on 26.5 percent shooting (9-for-34) Friday.
“Hedo has had a tough series,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “During the season, they didn’t trap him as much. Today, he had some opportunities. He’s a guy we’ve gone to for two years, a guy I trust and I a guy I believe in.”