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NBA Finals Preview: Keeping LeBron James in check without Andre Iguodala

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Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) passes the ball against Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on June 12, 2017. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)

During a first-quarter time out on Feb. 12 against the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr handed his dry-erase clipboard to Andre Iguodala, clad in a black Warriors warm-up hoodie. The 34-year-old wing got down on one knee, across from Kevin Durant, and ran the huddle.

In the first half of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, an injured Iguodala — this time dressed in a black suit over a dark henley — had to hold himself back. He walked up to a time out huddle, thought for a moment about what he would have done on a particular defensive possession, and kept it to himself. Instead, he went over to Kevon Looney.

“I switched it off,” Iguodala said. “I asked, ‘How can I help Looney? Where should Looney be? Where can I get him in position to be a threat on the floor?’”

Since going down in Game 3 against the Rockets with a lateral left knee contusion, Iguodala — who has been ruled out of Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers — has had to find ways to pass on what he knows on defense, which will be especially important as his healthy teammates ready to guard a man who, in this postseason, has been nigh indefensible: LeBron James.

With a supporting cast much weaker than the last three times he’s faced the Warriors in the NBA Finals, James has had to be a one-man band this postseason: He’s averaging 41.3 minutes per game, with 8.8 assists, 34 points, 1.1 blocks, 1.4 steals and 9.2 rebounds. He’s averaging 12.6 baskets per game. No other Cavalier player has averaged more than 4.9.

Iguodala has been one of the most effective players in the NBA guarding James, earning the 2015 Finals MVP for doing just that. As the Warriors begin their quest to defeat James for the third time in four years, they’ll have to find a way to do that without Iguodala.

In each of the last three finals against the Warriors, the Cavaliers’ net rating (point difference per 100 possessions) when both James and Iguodala were on the floor has been -15.5 (2015), -1.5 (2016) and -13.6 (2017). With James on the court, and Iguodala off, Cleveland’s net rating was +18.8 in 2015, +21.4 in 2016 and +13.2 in 2017.

“I’ll pick his brain about some things, about how to — some tendencies of LeBron, the fact of the switches or small things like that to help me out,” said Looney, who started all four games Iguodala missed against Houston. “He’s one of the best defenders in the league.”

The Warriors, Kerr said, will rotate Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston primarily on James. Thompson and Livingston are not physical matches for James, and using Green as the primary defender on James would take away Golden State’s best help defender. But, there isn’t a lot of experience elsewhere. In six possessions this year, Looney allowed James to score four points. Bell allowed James to score two points in four possessions. Livingston allowed two points on three possessions.

There are two sides of the coin to using a scoring threat like Durant to cover James. First, James — who has played a league-leading 3,769 minutes this season — will have to work harder to get around Durant’s length, and therefore tire out sooner. This season, in two games, Durant has held James to 23 points in 77 possessions, or 29.9 points per 100 possessions, well below his 36.4 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. On the other hand, if Durant wears himself out guarding James, he won’t be able to make his seemingly impossible rise-up shots on the offensive end. That’s a risk Golden State needs to take.

“When K.D. is locked in and puts his mind to it, he’s one of the best defenders that I’ve seen,” Iguodala said. “I’ve seen it in practice and going up against him in a couple series. With LeBron, it’s every possession, no possessions off, because he’ll pick you apart.”

Aside from the lack of experience, the biggest drawback to defending James with Looney, Livingston or Bell is the fact that none of them are the kind of shooter Iguodala is, which will allow James to pick them off and get out in transition. It would also give the No. 29 defense in the NBA will get a reprieve.

“I think Shaun has the experience, but Looney with Andre out, Looney has been able to get a ton of experience,” said Green. “Jordan has been able to get a ton of experience, and that will bode well for us moving forward to, like I said, whenever Andre comes back.”

In the meantime, James’s current supporting cast has been together less than four months, and will likely be without a concussed Kevin Love to start the series. Forcing that supporting cast to make plays on both ends of the floor should be at the top of Golden State’s to-do list, and their best defensive option against James — save for an Iguodala who returns at, he said, probably less than 90 percent, if he returns at all — will be their best scorer: Durant.

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