Rich Hofmann: Sixers' Iguodala has a lot of support now

Magic's Hedo Turkoglu fights for rebound with Sixers' Andre Iguodala.
Magic's Hedo Turkoglu fights for rebound with Sixers' Andre Iguodala.
Posted: April 20, 2009

ORLANDO - The official play-by-play said it was an 18-foot fadeaway jump shot. For the people who are trying to figure out Andre Iguodala, where he is, what he means to the Sixers, it might have seemed like 18 miles. That is how far some people still believe Iguodala needs to travel if he is to catch up with his salary and the rest. They see him, but they don't recognize him.

The scoreboard said there were 2.2 seconds left when Iguodala stole Game 1 of the Sixers' playoff series against the Orlando Magic. He had bricked two free throws with about a minute to go, an excruciating impediment to a comeback from 18 points down. After being shackled last spring, Iguodala looked as if he were going to come up short in a playoff game, again.

But then he hoisted both the ball and the ballclub, with nerve. And after it was over, teammate Lou Williams might have put it the best of all.

"It was a great thing that he had the confidence to want to shoot that ball again," Williams said, the 100-98 final score just having stunned Amway Arena into silence. "That shows how much he has grown as our leader, as one of the captains of our team. He missed two free throws, nobody hung their heads, he didn't hang his head. He came down and demanded the ball again.

"That says a lot about where he is right now, how focused he is. He made a great shot, and that's what we're going to need out of him in this series. He's going to have to do that every single game."

The Sixers are big underdogs against the Magic; this just in. But it is the time of the year when reputations are made and unmade, and now they have won Game 1, and now Iguodala has led them with a fine playoff line: 20 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, and the game-winning dagger.

Reputations, made and unmade . . .

"I think my teammates expect me to make big plays and I have to make them in order to be a leader for this team," Iguodala said. "Missing those free throws, they gave me an opportunity to get it back. That speaks volumes for those guys. They said, 'We're going to give our leader another chance.'

"And they stuck with me, too. Right after I missed them, Thaddeus Young looked at me and said, 'We'll get it back.' I think tonight we did a good job of sticking together as a team, and as one unit, and it showed when we were getting back in the game."

Last spring, the Detroit Pistons completely handcuffed Iguodala in their playoff series. It was painful to watch at times.

The Sixers said back then that the Pistons were hyperfocused defensively on Iguodala, that nobody could have broken those shackles. But, well, people wondered. It was only natural. And when Iguodala received his big, new megacontract, they wondered some more.

That he has been good this season, as good an all-around player as he's ever been, has not gone unnoticed. But it has not convinced a lot of people, either.

"We discuss this all the time: We think Andre is a very, very good basketball player, knocking at the door of the All-Star Game," general manager Ed Stefanski said. "I don't think the people have embraced him as that kind of player.

"He's the leader of the team and he signed a long-term contract. People say this and that about it, but he is living up to it for me. He is paying dividends. We just have to get people to understand what kind of player this kid. He's young, just turned 25. We're thrilled with him . . .

"I hear what people say about last year [against Detroit]. But that was one-on-four a lot. Tonight was one-on-one. Thad [Young] is a better player. Lou was tough. And Donyell Marshall spreads the floor for us. Last year, I thought as soon as Andre Iguodala got past his first man, there was a zone set up. It was different tonight. He was terrific."

Iguodala knows what was said after last spring - he has ears, after all. When you ask him if he feels unchained compared to then, he says he does, "a little bit." But he says the way Magic center Dwight Howard has himself planted under the basket, "I think the jump shot is there a little bit. You've just got to take what the defense is giving you . . . It's a little bit different, but I've just got to continue to attack."

He has that part exactly right - because they are not going to pull off the upset in this series if Iguodala is not their best player. That's it. They needed a full ensemble's contribution last night - 42 bench points compared to 13 for the Magic - but Iguodala needs to lead them. It is the responsibility he wears now, and they all know it.

With that, Iguodala returns to a gut feeling.

"I don't know what that is about our team," he said. "There's just something about us - we just continue to push, no matter what. The guys step out there and get an opportunity to play, and they play hard.

"It's also that Philadelphia style of play. Just the city itself is grind-y - everybody is a hard worker. I think, as a team, we bring that to the table as well."

Grind-y. Whatever. *

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at http://go.philly.com/theidlerich.

For recent columns go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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