Champion Warriors find ways to surprise again

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Wednesday, June 17, 2015

CLEVELAND -- Before Andre Iguodala received his NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award, he made some unusual post-Finals plans. He caught Stephen Curry's attention and reminded him it was time to cash in on Steve Kerr's pledge to use a connection to get them on the most revered golf course in the land.

"When we won, I'm yelling at Steph, 'We're going to Augusta!'" Iguodala said. "You know how everybody goes to Disneyland? We're going to Augusta."

That's your 2014-15 NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Unconventional to the end -- and even beyond the end. And that's Iguodala, who made golf a central part of this season -- even if beating Curry at Augusta National would be even more unlikely than his beating Curry and LeBron James for the Finals MVP.

The Warriors followed form in turning a 67-win season featuring an efficient offense and stalwart defense into a championship. And they took advantage of a healthy roster amid an NBA landscape littered with devastating injuries, including a torn shoulder and broken kneecap that robbed the Cleveland Cavaliers of two of their best players.

But when the Warriors completed their run to the championship with a 105-97 victory over the Cavaliers in Game 6 of the Finals, they didn't do it with a barrage of 3-pointers. They didn't completely abandon the center position, as they threatened to do at times during the playoffs. And they weren't led by Curry.

Their MVP of the series -- the MVP of the series, by a 7-4 media vote over James -- was Iguodala, marking the first time a player who didn't start a regular-season game won the Finals MVP. In a season full of magical moments, this was general manager Bob Myers' favorite. It wasn't Curry winning the Most Valuable Player award or Klay Thompson scoring 37 points in a quarter or even his own moment of glory when he was named NBA Executive of the Year. It came on the quickly assembled stage on the court at Quicken Loans Arena, when Bill Russell handed the trophy named after him to Iguodala.

"That's the one," Myers said. "That he was up there getting it, it was perfect. Sometimes life works out like it should."

If you have followed the Warriors, you know the reason Myers found Iguodala's turn in the spotlight so fitting. Kerr told us of Iguodala's importance all along. Well, maybe not at the moment Kerr lied about his intention to move Iguodala into the starting lineup in Game 4. But again and again, Kerr said the key to the Warriors' season was Iguodala's willingness to become a bench player for the first time in his career to open a spot in the starting lineup for Harrison Barnes. It was indicative of the type of unselfish attitude a team needs in order to win a championship.

It didn't come easy for a man who had started every previous game in his 10-year NBA career. But he found an outlet to cope with his move to the bench, suggested by Tyrell Jamerson, Iguodala's mentor since his college days at Arizona:


"We wouldn't watch basketball when we came to the house," Jamerson said. "We put on the Golf Channel, so he could relax. If he was having a rough time I'd say, 'Hey, do you want to go out and hit some golf balls?'"

When the Warriors fell behind Memphis 2-1 in the second round, Iguodala and Curry played a round on the off day. (Iguodala sounded irked when he couldn't do the same thing after the Warriors fell behind 2-1 in the Finals because of NBA-enforced media obligations.) Iguodala isn't a great golfer, but he has gone from shooting in the 100s to shooting in the 80s over the past year.

Among the reasons to doubt the Warriors' championship qualifications was their lack of Finals experience on the roster, and the absence of a visible team leader. You didn't see Curry barking orders at his teammates. You'd see Draymond Green get demonstrative, but Green's emotions were as likely to prompt teammates to settle him down as they were to fall in after him. Maybe what we saw in the Finals was Iguodala demonstrating the concept of "leading from behind" espoused by Nelson Mandela.

Mandela cited the example of a shepherd walking behind his flock, allowing the sheep in front to believe they were choosing the direction, when in reality he was in control.

"It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur," Mandela said. "You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership."

Iguodala took on the most important and thankless task in the series: defending James. Iguodala did it well enough to earn praise, even though James averaged 36 points in the series. It took James 196 shots to get all those points, though, part of what made Iguodala useful. James shot only 30 percent on contested shots against Iguodala and committed 13 of his 21 turnovers in the series when guarded by him.

When Iguodala started Game 4, it was the major tactical shift in the series -- and prompted the Cavaliers to downsize for most of Game 5. When that didn't work, Cleveland went back to Timofey Mozgov in Game 6. Kerr countered by playing Festus Ezelifor 11 productive minutes, just enough to keep the center position from becoming completely obsolete.

On the offensive end, Iguodala made enough of the shots the Cavaliers dared him to take, hitting 52 percent of his shots and 40 percent of his 3-pointers. The Cavaliers were determined to deny Curry and Thompson their shots and force Iguodala, Green and Barnes to beat them. In many ways, the Warriors' championship hopes rested on Iguodala's ability to hit the open jumper. That's a tough place to put an admittedly cerebral player.

"My mind was working so many ways," Iguodala said. "Like: 'What's going to happen if you win? What's going to happen if you lose? How do you approach the game starting? Do you come out firing? Do you let it just come to you?'

"For me, it was just playing my game. If you're feeling it, shoot it. If you feel like you can make a play for somebody else, make a play for somebody else."

In Game 5, he had six assists and six rebounds before he made a field goal. In Game 6, he matched Curry with a team-high 25 points.

Iguodala's award shouldn't be an indictment of Curry, who averaged 26 points in the series. He scored 17 in the fourth quarter of Game 5 to put the Warriors on the brink of a championship. He made five free throws in the final two minutes of Game 6 to hold off the Cavaliers' last gasp (after Iguodala, a shaky free throw shooter, had to briefly check out to keep the Cavs from fouling him).

Curry's 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter of Game 4 and a 3 to put the Warriors up 10 in the fourth of Game 5 were big moments in the series; they just weren't capital-M moments. It's OK. Michael Jordan had to wait until the last of his six Finals -- had to watch Kerr and John Paxson have their shots first -- until he got that freeze-frame memory in Game 6 in 1998.

Neither Iguodala nor Curry could match LeBron's production in this series. LeBron made his own strong case for MVP with averages of 36 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. But James had neither the support nor the stamina to give the Cavaliers the edge.

The team with the best player on the court typically wins an NBA playoff series, but the Warriors might be helping to change that bit of conventional wisdom, as well. The Spurs beat LeBron last season, and the Warriors got him this season. It still marks only the third loss in the past 20 playoff series for LeBron, a remarkable stretch for anyone in the NBA. But his individual greatness didn't matter as much as Iguodala's fit within the team concept in these Finals.

Maybe LeBron should take up golf.

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