Watching Andre Iguodala bust his ass in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, scrambling around screens and harrying LeBron post-ups, totally thriving within the confines of his game, was one of the happiest and unlikeliest things to happen this postseason. Andre, who’s been laboring on the outskirts of NBA notability for practically his whole career, ran up and snatched the game by the pants, then dunked on it. It was delightful. Dre is delightful. Why have we been doing the NBA Finals for so long without Andre?
There’s an easy yarn to pull with Iguodala: The former big dog since run out of town, diminished but with enough in him for the big games, came to Golden State to teach the young bucks and was humble enough to come off the bench this year. The unselfish star has been rewarded for knowing his place, playing his role, and now he has a chance to shine under brighter lights. Tidy, but that doesn’t quite cover the little pangs of giddiness NBA nerds felt every time Iguodala stonewalled LeBron or whipped a no-look pass through traffic, unconscious tics showing off Andre playing (rightly) like he deserved this. The basic condition of disappointment with the way things always seem to turn out for this sort of player wasn’t operative in this game, and so we got to see some cool shit like late-prime Andre Iguodala landing on the perfect team, canning a jumper in the Finals without one of his shoes.
Andre had himself a game. He went 6-8 from the field, 2-3 on threes, for 15 points and two game-stopping dunks, including the one at the end of the first quarter when he crossed LeBron clean into San Leandro Bay, and most crucially, stuck on him like a mule. James scored 44 points on 38 shots, and from possession to possession looked like a Thunder God raining lightning and buckets down on Oakland. He also resembled a guy having a real hard time getting around the help defense, who could really have used the half- or quarter-step that four straight trips to the Finals and a gold medal run have robbed him of, and further, like a guy whose spray-on hair was running down into his eyes. In some large part, that was because of Andre.
Iguodala held LeBron to 11 points on 4-14 shooting, including a miss for the last shot of regulation. (He was 12-22 against all other defenders, and bossed the pants off of Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson whenever he found them.) Watch the big possession below, but also listen to Dre talk through what was going on with that play:
LeBron beat him from that spot last year by going left and hitting a step back, and Dre knew (guessed, wisely) that Bron would try the same thing again, so he shaded it hard; Andre’s known as one of the league’s most calculating defenders, and this is what that looks like in motion. But LeBron also has freak recall—this is a guy who memorizes his friends’ favorite Madden formations and tendencies while reciting chapter and verse on shots from a random February game five years back, and which floor panels were creaky that day—and, anticipating Iguodala stepping out on him, performed what Dre called a double step-back (the crowd at Oracle just called it a walk) to get the shot off. Andre had enough legs to get out and pester LeBron anyway.
Part of what made this so enjoyable to watch in real time was how natural it felt for Andre to be doing it. No shock or awe at his abilities—we’ve known about those forever—just a fuck-yeah fist-pump that he was doing it, like he was always ready to be kicking ass in the Finals and he’s just here finally making good. A reporter asked after the game if his solid play had anything to do with being amped to guard LeBron in such an important game.
“My years in Philly,” he said, “I had to guard the best player and then try to create on offense. But then guarding the second tier—I shouldn’t say second tier, but second tier—I was so used to having so much energy on defense guarding the elite guys, playing against the guys right underneath them always seemed to bite me.”
Now imagine being that guy, getting up and facing down the biggest stars in the league for a solid decade, and dealing with all the kaleidoscoping bullshit Iguodala has seen in his career. As soon as he was drafted by the 76ers (9th, out of Arizona), he was stuck with his first NBA nickname, A.I.2, positioning him as a derivative of the folk hero he was ill-equipped to succeed. He developed into an all-around excellent player and earned an $80 million contract that mostly just resulted in loud (and justified) debates about whether a team that pays Andre Iguodala $80 million can succeed in the NBA’s upper ranks. He was eventually traded to Denver in the Dwight Howard deal … for Andrew Bynum, who never played a game for Philly. When he landed in Golden State on a sign-and-trade (the Warriors threw in some spare bodies and a coupon to the Dairy Queen) the worry turned to the fact that Dre was a good player but a garbage outside shooter, and wouldn’t it be a shame if that cramped the floor for Steph and Klay? Later, his most unassailable skill—his defense—was minimized by the new analytic maxim that perimeter defense is cheap and Draymond Green’s ascendent run at Defensive Player of the Year. It’s been a career of looking at Dre’s obvious talent and ability in the subjunctive—along the way, he even managed to get jobbed out of a dunk contest win by Nate Robinson, of all dumbasses. And this is why seeing Andre thrive in Golden State feels like getting away with something.
The NBA’s basic business model—a star in every city, and churning the star-making apparatus in the cities they ain’t—has mutated the careers of guys like Iguodala. (The second tier, so to speak.) This has been especially true in the post-Jordan era of max salaries. Players like Iguodala, Michael Redd, and Rashard Lewis have had enough talent to struggle through attempts at being passable facsimiles of The Guy, but everyone knew they were bargain-drawer MJs at full-freight MSRP whose skillsets would have ideally made them act-of-God role players. By flattening out what all “franchise players” make, not only did it bone the maestros like LeBron out of millions, it bumped up the price of keeping your only good player and pretending he was a franchise anchor. This was good in that these guys made a lot of money. It was a shame for fans in that we never really got to see them thriving in their natural habitat as man-eating defensive specialists or guided-missile long-range bombers, just expensive store-brand pseudo-stars.
This is a big reason why elite teams have so often been bereft of elite sub-superstar talent. Think any of the geriatrics attached annually to the Big Three Celtics, or later the Heat, or just monstrosities like Kobe, Pau, and … Sasha. Smart teams like the Spurs have found value in overlooked players along the interstices of good-to-great, but it’s still rare to come across a former almost-star in a non-star role. (Remember, Dre on the Warriors is only possible because Steph Curry is, criminally, the fifth-highest-paid player on the team. The NBA is stupid.)
Maybe this is the high-water mark for Dre this series. It would be hard for to improve on that game to begin with, but with Kyrie Irving in traction, you suspect LeBron will be coming to put a hurtin’ on anyone dumb or unlucky enough to check him, and that Steph and Klay will presumably carpet bomb a game or two out of existence. That’s fine. Andre got his shine as the curtain rose on this year’s Finals, and it was a hell of a thing to watch.
Photos via Getty, AP