John Smallwood: Iguodala deserves this moment

Evan Turner embraces Andre Iguodala on top of the scorer's table as teammates gather around after the Sixers clinched the series at the Wells Fargo Center.
Evan Turner embraces Andre Iguodala on top of the scorer's table as teammates gather around after the Sixers clinched the series at the Wells Fargo Center. (RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: May 11, 2012

I DON'T KNOW WHETHER two free throws can change a legacy, but for one night, at least, Andre Iguodala was finally what Philadelphia had begged him to be - the leading man, the guy who made the plays that carried the team to victory.

It hasn't been too much to ask. After all, he is the Sixer with the biggest contract, the one who has been sold as the face of the franchise.

Now, let's be real, because sinking two free throws with 2.2 seconds left isn't exactly like draining a long jumper the buzzer to win.

That's the realm of the Michael Jordans, Larry Birds and Kobe Bryants.

Still given Iguodala's star-crossed history as a Sixer, Philadelphia will gladly take what he delivered Thursday night.

And make no mistake, because by sinking those two free throws against the Chicago Bulls, Iguodala, the other A.I., the man who could not be king, sealed the most significant victory this organization has had since the Allen Iverson-led Sixers blew out the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference finals.

No, these Sixers did not advance to the NBA Finals, but their 79-78 victory over the Chicago Bulls did advance the franchise to the second round of the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2003.

They will revive their long-dormant rivalry with the Boston Celtics beginning Saturday in Beantown.

With 7 seconds to go, Iguodala rebounded a missed free throw by Chicago center Omer Asik and rushed downcourt.

"I was thinking attack the rim," Iguodala said. "I was going to score or get fouled."

Iguodala got fouled by Asik, putting him in position to win, lose or send the game into overtime.

Two of those results would have been disastrous to a player whose reputation in this city is dicey at best.

Iguodala made the winning play.

"I've got to tell you, how can you write a better script than Andre Iguodala getting a rebound, driving the length of the floor," said Sixers coach Doug Collins, who has been Iguodala's biggest, and sometimes only, supporter in the Delaware Valley. "[He] struggled all year at the foul line, but stepped up, made two free throws to win a playoff series to get to the second round for [his] first time. He just stepped up and knocked them down."

Those two shots were no gimmes.

It's the same 15-footer players have shot since the invention of the game. Iguodala probably has shot tens of thousands of them in his life.

But free throws are far from automatic. They probably are the most mentally demanding shot in the game.

It's the only shot you really have time to think about.

Some players are better than others at handling the pressure that comes along with that, and to be completely honest, Iguodala has not been one of those guys.

This season, Iguodala shot a career-low 61.7 percent from the line. In the fourth quarter, when most games were won or lost, he made a woeful 23 of 51 free throw attempts (45.1 percent.)

Iguodala might have been one of the last Sixers the sellout crowd of 20,362 wanted to see step to the line with the team trailing by a point and a frightening prospect of a Game 7 in Chicago riding on the outcome.

But Iguodala quietly had been clutch from the line in the fourth quarter during this series. He went to the line having made seven of his previous eight free fourth-quarter free throws.

He credited that to a new approach he had taken to free-throw shooting. He said he imagines he is teaching his son to shoot free throws.

"It's embarrassing if you miss while teaching your son," he said. "It helps me relax. It seems more like practice."

Still, there were so many lingering memories from his first seven seasons of coming up short at big moments.

Too often, we've seen him miss one of two freebies this season.

My biggest question when he got the ball was whether he would miss the first or second to send the game to overtime instead of winning it.

Had that happened, even if the Sixers still won, no one would want to hear that Iguodala had actually played a solid game with 18 points and seven assists before the free throws.

An entire career was being catalogued by this moment. Iguodala finally made the play superstars make.

"It was good to have them go through, especially after struggles all season from the line," Iguodala said. "No, I've never been in that situation before [having to make two free throws to win a game]. It was foreign territory.

"I'm happy, but not as happy as I am for my teammates," he added.

Maybe if the Sixers do well in their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Celtics, Iguodala will find a way to enjoy the game a little more.

Then again, maybe too much water has gone over the dam and his shaky relationship with Philadelphia will stay the same - unless the Sixers somehow reach the NBA Finals.

That's too bad, because it's not Iguodala's fault that he was suddenly thrust into a role he was never meant to have when the Iverson era abruptly ended at the start of the 2006-07 season.

It wasn't Iguodala's fault that management offered him a superstar-level contract in 2008, despite his not being a true franchise-type player.

Under other circumstances, Iguodala's stint in Philadelphia probably would be viewed more favorably.

But things are what they are, and Iguodala has been the Sixer most identified with the franchise's stunning run of mediocrity since 2003.

This is the fifth time he has gone to the playoffs with the Sixers. This is the first time he will play more than six games.

"Iguodala has gone through a lot here," Collins said. "I told him, 'Nobody deserves this moment more than you did.' "


Send email to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/Smallwood.

 

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