Andre Iguodala has been waiting an awfully long time — 11 seasons, just under 900 games and more than 32,000 NBA minutes — for the chance to make a difference in the NBA Finals. He's not about to let something as small as losing his shoe in the middle of a possession stop him.
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Nearing the halfway point of the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, Iguodala's Golden State Warriors trailed the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers, 86-82. With the shot clock winding down, Iguodala — who had stepped out of his left shoe near half-court earlier in the play — curled to the left corner, away from the defense of James. Stephen Curry hit him with the pass, and Iguodala elevated off one shoe and one sock before James could close out, drilling the corner 3 to draw the Dubs within one, giving Oracle Arena a reason to roar. (As if the gold-shirted masses needed one.)
My favorite thing about this: while you'd think losing a shoe in the middle of play might be relatively rare, this is the third time in the last four postseasons that someone has lost a shoe like this in the midst of a big game. Weirder still? The first two both featured another player involved in the 2015 Finals — Cavaliers reserve Mike Miller, who was standing right behind Iguodala as he rose up for the jumper. (The basketball gods move in mysterious ways.)
We doubt that Iguodala intended his shoeless shotmaking as a tip of the cap to his fellow veteran swingman, but it's a neat grace note regardless ... and a reminder that, in the heat of the moment, you don't necessarily need two shoes to step up.
"When you get into a flow, as a kid, you play in socks," Iguodala said after Game 1. "You play in socks all the time in your room, so you go back to those days and just playing ball."
The 31-year-old Iguodala stepped up and just played ball throughout Game 1, chipping in 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting while adding three rebounds, two assists, a steal, a block and excellent defensive play in 31 1/2 minutes of work to help the Warriors score a 108-100 overtime win over the Cavaliers and take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
He looked a bit tentative in the early going, as the Cavaliers largely backed off him defensively, seemingly intent on making Iguodala — who entered Game 1 shooting just 44 percent from the floor and 31.9 percent from 3-point land in the postseason, and who's become an iffy free-throw shooter over the past four seasons — prove he could beat them if he had the ball in his hands.
Near the end of the first, with the Cavs having raced out to a big early lead behind the scoring of James and Kyrie Irving, Iguodala pressed the action, making a slick move to beat LeBron off the bounce, get all the way to the rim and finish with a two-hand slam that cut the Warriors' deficit to 10 heading into the second quarter:
He was a key piece of a 6-1/2-minute run by the Warriors second unit — including point guard Shaun Livingston, shooting guard Leandro Barbosa, center Festus Ezeli and power forward Marreese Speights, back in the lineup after missing the prior eight games with a calf strain — spanning the end of the first and start of the second quarters that helped Golden State recover from their early struggles. He also stepped up his work defensively, making LeBron work for every bucket he got on the perimeter and in the post.
The four-time MVP got a lot of them, of course — James scored a game- and NBA Finals-career high 44 points on 18-for-38 shooting to go with eight rebounds and six assists in 46 minutes of playing time. But Iguodala gave no quarter when handed the daunting assignment, using his length, quickness, instincts and years of experience guarding the league's very best scorers to try to make things at least a little harder, and the effort a little more taxing, than James might have liked.
"I thought he was fantastic," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after the win. "You know, Andre is one of the smartest defenders I've ever seen. He understands angles, he understands where everybody is on the floor. It's funny to say, when a guy gets 44 points, that the defender did a really good job, but I thought Andre did extremely well."
The numbers bear that out:
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) June 5, 2015
"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."
Iguodala did just that in the closing seconds of the third quarter, picking LeBron's pocket by waiting until the absolute perfect moment to reach his hand in as James crossed over, poking the ball free and taking it the distance for a second quarter-closing dunk:
Iguodala carried his strong play over into the fourth quarter, fueling an early-frame surge that put the Warriors on top by making a 3-pointer before delivering a perfect pass to Livingston for a layup:
... and by refusing to let J.R. Smith shake him, staying with every juke and fake before leaping forward as Smith stepped back and using those long arms to block his jumper:
But Iguodala's biggest defensive play of the night might have been his work in harassing James on the final possession of the fourth quarter, swiping down at the ball with one hand as James gathered to shoot a potential game-winner and still managing to contest the jumper at its peak with his other hand:
James missed the jumper, Iman Shumpert missed his attempt at a putback — "It looked good the whole way," Kerr said after the game. "It was right on line. It was maybe a few inches short. But I thought the whole bench thought it was going in" — and the game headed to overtime, where the Warriors got themselves to the free throw line and clamped down on Cleveland to score the win.
We often hear about defenders finding success in limiting opposing scorers by doing their work early — fighting to prevent the opponent from getting his preferred position, denying an easy entry pass, etc. In this case, Iguodala's work began last February, when he couldn't stop James — still a member of the Miami Heat — on a very similar isolation in a very similar spot on the floor at Oracle Arena:
"Last year, he beat us on a shot similar to that at home in the regular season," Iguodala said during his postgame press conference. "So you kind of get a feel for guys, what they want to do, and you want to make them take tough jump shots, but you don't want to let them get into a good rhythm.
"I kind of knew what play he wanted to get into. Just going left, step back, and I was right there on him, and he was still able to get off the shot. So at that point, you just want percentages to kick in and help you out."
The percentages did kick in, and Iguodala and his teammates took advantage with strong, committed play to turn back the King and take Game 1. Given how hard-fought a contest it was, though, it's unlikely the Warriors will find themselves feeling too footloose and fancy-free in the time before the tip of Game 2 on Sunday night ... or, at least, not to the same level Iguodala did midway through the fourth.
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