Before Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, there was much speculation as to which starting lineup Steve Kerr will send out against a team that had given them a huge scare during last season’s Western Conference finals.
Four spots were obviously a given — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green were all crucial components in a four-headed dragon, one that the Warriors were counting on to do much of the heavy lifting.
It was that fifth spot that was heavily scrutinized, and whoever Kerr chose to complement his four All-Stars would not only chart a course for how the series could turn out — it would also serve as a referendum on how seriously Kerr approached such a crucial matchup against a team anointed by some to be the antidote to what the rest of the league considered to be a dynastic venom.
As we all would find out, Kerr didn’t intend to mess around.
So is Iguodala.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) April 28, 2019
Hamptons 5 to start:
Kerr chose to immediately unleash the dreaded Hamptons 5 upon their fiercest rivals — and by doing so, chose to insert the player who has arguably been the biggest pain in the Rockets’ collective backside.
Andre Iguodala is a perfect foil to the Rockets on both ends of the floor. His versatility as an offensive player — ranging from his ability to be a facilitator and playmaker as well as a complementary off-ball threat capable of setting screens, shooting the occasional three-pointer, and acting as a pressure release when his more threatening teammates garner most of the attention — has played a significant part in stretching the Rockets defense thin.
But it has been his versatility on the defensive end that has played a much bigger role in this series so far, and to members of Dub Nation and to more knowledgeable fans who are appropriately cognizant of what Iguodala can bring to the table, his impact on the Rockets offense — particularly against their prized superstar duo of James Harden and Chris Paul — comes as no surprise.
Iguodala was Harden and Paul’s worst nightmare during the 2018 Western Conference finals, before a knee injury during Game 3 sidelined him for the rest of the series. Most fans remember this graphic displaying Iguodala’s effectiveness against the Rockets’ two-headed offensive monster, whose bite was reduced to nothing more than a bark whenever Iguodala was there to act as a muzzle.
Of course, this injury would soon be followed by Paul’s hamstring injury, which took him out of the final 2 games of the series. It was referred to by Rockets devotees as the main reason behind their team’s collapse during Game 6 and Game 7.
Warriors fans, on the other hand, countered with an argument of their own: Were it not for Iguodala being sidelined after Game 3, the series wouldn’t even have reached a Game 7, with the Warriors dispatching the Rockets in 5 or 6 games.
Based on the graphic above, it was an extremely compelling take, and one that had loads of merit to it. The Rockets — Harden and Paul in particular — couldn’t find an answer to the then 34-year-old defensive maestro. For all intents and purposes, Iguodala was single-handedly putting clamps on two superstars in a practically simultaneous manner.
Others begged to differ, saying that Paul’s injury had more of an impact in terms of determining the fate of the Rockets. One argument being paraded around is the fact that Paul is a superstar who is an inherently much better player than Iguodala, who has served mostly as a sixth man and role player for most of his time with the Warriors.
No one is disputing that assertion — taking both players and scrutinizing them in an individual manner, Paul is the better player; he is one of the best point guards of all time, who in his prime was an unquestioned top-3 player in the league despite his penchant for flaming out of the playoffs in an untimely manner.
The question, however, isn’t who is the better player between Paul and Iguodala — rather, it is a question of which player was more valuable for their team in that particular series. The fact that both players never saw another minute of action against each other after their respective injuries only served to intensify and prolong the debate, one that could only be put to rest — or perhaps be favorably swerved toward one spectrum — should these two teams meet again in the playoffs.
The opportunity for truths to be exposed as lies and falsehoods to be vindicated as gospel came during these first 2 games of the second round — and they paint a rather bleak picture for those who have disputed Iguodala’s value.
Kerr inserted Iguodala into the starting lineup with the primary intention of limiting Harden on offense. Iguodala is a highly intelligent defender. He has a sublime understanding of the tendencies of his opponents, and he adjusts accordingly. He has an uncanny ability to predict things on the court before they unfold, a sort of basketball extrasensory perception that only a select few in the league possess — which is all the more crucial against someone like Harden, who counts on fooling his defender through shifty dribble moves, footwork that ranges from exquisite to highly dubious, and luring them into fouling him and sending him to the line.
Iguodala simply doesn’t fall for Harden’s bag of basketball trickery, nor does he get intimidated by the prospect of having to limit one of the deadliest offensive weapons in the league today, if not the deadliest. Iguodala stays grounded against Harden, reaching only when he knows he can, and pulling back whenever he senses Harden about to lure him into an untenable position. His strength rarely allows Harden to blow past him, and even a slight window of exposure allows the possibility of Iguodala swiping down and taking away the ball through one of his patented clean strips.
Iguodala also isn’t afraid of letting Harden get past him at times, funneling him toward his other defensively stout teammates such as Green and Durant, who are more than capable of stifling a Harden drive.
Iguodala possesses a rare blend of defensive talent, with his length and athleticism combined with his defensive acumen making a difference so far against Harden — and in these 2 games to start off the series, the proof is in the statistical pudding.
According to matchup data tracked by Second Spectrum in nba.com/stats, Harden was forced into an extremely inefficient and ineffective shooting clip whenever Iguodala was on him — 9 points on 1-for-7 shooting, good for 14.3 percent, with an 0-for-4 clip from three-point range in Game 1.
In Game 2, Iguodala forced Harden into a similarly inefficient stat line when matched up against each other — 9 points on 4-for-11 shooting, good for 36.4 percent, with a 1-for-4 clip from three-point range.
All in all, in the first 2 games of the series, Harden is averaging 9 points, shooting 5-for-18 from the field (27.8 percent) and shooting 1-for-8 from beyond the arc (12.5 percent) when Iguodala is his primary defender.
The data is indisputable, and the numbers do not lie. The visual evidence is also present, if one still refuses to put faith in statistical analysis.
“Andre didn’t look 35 to me,” Kerr said after Game 2. “He’s just an incredible athlete. What makes Andre special is when you combine that athleticism with that brain, now you’ve got a hell of a player. I say it all the time, I’m lucky to coach him, we’re lucky to have him. He ties up a lot of loose ends for us. He does so many things for us and I thought he was brilliant tonight.”
A player like Iguodala who ties up loose ends, as Kerr put it, is often the kind of player who isn’t as noticeable and flamboyant. He does much of the behind-the-scenes work, the kind that doesn’t often result in awards or constant praise from mainstream media.
Iguodala has had his moments of flying under the radar, and that is perhaps why his impact on the Warriors is often understated and underappreciated, especially by those who do not watch him and the team on a regular basis. Perhaps this is why detractors and critics brushed aside his injury last year, and paid heed to Paul’s injury instead.
But now that Iguodala is as healthy and spry as ever — looking like he could play in the league for another 10 years or so — his impact on both ends of the floor cannot be ignored any longer.
Contrary to misguided notions and uninformed opinions that were prevalent last year and still prevail up to this present moment, Andre Iguodala has always mattered against the Rockets. And he will continue to matter for as long as he is on the floor giving James Harden and his teammates a hell of a time on the court.