OAKLAND — Slipping off of a screen set for Klay Thompson, Warriors forward Draymond Green fielded a bounce pass in the middle of the lane as a pair of Rockets defenders rotated to contest what would have been a wide-open floater.
Green elected to toss a lob into the air for fellow forward Andre Iguodala, who soared in for a two-handed bringing Oracle Arena to its feet with less than eight minutes to go in the second quarter of the Warriors’ 115-109 win over Houston in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
This postseason, Iguodala, 35, has meant more to the Warriors than just the flashy dunks, like the one that gave the Warriors a nine-point lead midway through the second quarter. In addition, he’s provided a steadying hand and age-defying athleticism that has, so far, given Golden State a decided ege in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
“He doesn’t look 35 to me,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after Tuesday’s win. “He’s just an incredible athlete. What makes Andre special is when you combine his athleticism with that brain. Now you’ve got one hell of a player.”
Last year in the postseason, the Warriors severely missed Iguodala, who watched the final four games of the Western Conference Finals against these same Rockets from the bench with a knee injury.
After winning two of the first three games that Iguodala played in by a combined margin of 54 points, the series took a dramatic shift when Golden State was left without him.
While the Warriors wound up winning in seven games, moving on to win their third NBA title in four years, many believed that the series would not have been as drawn out had Iguodala not gone down.
“It would have been short,” Iguodala told the Bay Area News Group. “Four to one.”
As the Warriors drew Houston for the fourth time in five years in postseason play, Golden State decided to get ahead of the series by starting Iguodala and running with their Hamptons Five lineup — Iguodala, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.
“I think for this particular series, that’s our best lineup against these guys,” Green said.
The move, so far, has paid dividends for the Warriors two games into what has been one of the most anticipated matchups of the playoffs. In two starts — both wins for Golden State — Iguodala has shined.
The primary benefit has been that the Warriors’ most polished defenders take on the assignment of guarding one of the league’s most prolific scorers in James Harden.
In the first two games, Golden State has been able to hold Harden — who averaged a league-high 36.1 points per game in the regular season — to 32 points per game. With Iguodala’s help, they’ve also been able to to hold him to just 39% shooting from the floor — 5% lower than his regular season average of 44.1%.
Part of the challenges of guarding Harden have been keeping him off of the line, which the Warriors did well at in Game 2. After allowing Harden to shoot a team-high 14 free throws, Iguodala and company only sent the defending league MVP to the line nine times.
“I think we just try to keep from putting ourselves in a position that he can draw the foul on us,” Iguodala said. “He’s very crafty at drawing the whistle and you’ve got to adjust to the way the game is being called. The best way is to go through experiences where you have your hand in the cookie jar and you get caught and eventually you’ve got to stop putting yourself in that situation.”
In addition to the defensive know-how that Iguodala brings to the table, his athleticism — specifically his springiness and bounce — give the Warriors a lob threat.
“The way people guard us nowadays, we don’t get it as frequently as we used to,” Green said. “Nonetheless, when the play is there, you’ve got to take it.”
So far in the playoff run, the Warriors have been given the opportunity to throw the lob early and often.
Typically, using the high screen-and-roll, the Warriors use the congested top part of the court to free up Green in the paint. As Green’s defender is late to adjust when he slips the screen, a third defender is forced to rotate, leaving someone open under the basket.
Frequently, that open player has been Iguodala, who now leads all players with 18 dunks in the playoffs. Showcasing his still-lively legs and ever-present bounce, Iguodala often makes those watching forget that he’s 35-years-old.
“Honestly, this is a personal opinion, I just got really good genes,” Iguodala said. “[It’s p]rotecting those genes though, at the same time, watching what you put in your body, sleep. I drink a lot of water. I don’t drink anything but water… I have philosophies on what the body needs and it’s helping me.”
After scoring 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the floor, whatever Iguodala is doing, the Warriors want him to keep it up.
Thanks to his production both offensively and defensively, the Warriors now hold a solid, 2-0 series lead over the Rockets as they prepare to head to Houston for Games 3 and 4.
By keeping him in the starting lineup, the hope is that Golden State will be able to cruise past the Rockets, perhaps with a few more defensive stops and electrifying dunks.