With the weight of Philly on him, Iguodala sends Sixers past Bulls
He was whispering to his son as the weight of the game, the season and his entire career thrust itself down upon him with 2.2 seconds remaining. His son was far away, out of sight, but Andre Iguodala spoke to him all the same.
It is easy to understand why Andre Iguodala would be seeking out a loving and unthreatening face as he stood lonesome and vulnerable on the floor of the arena here Thursday night. He knew better than anyone what he would hear if he failed to make these two free throws. His only shield against the potential of anger and abuse was his ability to make these shots. He was trying to convert the threat into a celebration.
He could not have known how it would feel to lead a team into the second round of the playoffs until he had done it. You can daydream about these kinds of things in other cities, but in a hard place like Philadelphia they destroy you for getting ahead of yourself. Then on the day you win it's as if you were their guy all along.
After their 79-78 comeback win in Game 6 earned them an upset of the top-ranked Bulls -- only the fifth time in league history that a No. 8 had beaten a No. 1 -- the new owner of the 76ers, Josh Harris, joined a crowd of young fans near the baseline in baseball caps and face paint and one triangular hat of the kind Ben Franklin used to wear, and they hugged him as if he was John Lennon in 1965. Harris spun his way out of their arms gasping a smile with his shirt collar yanked open. He had earned a lot of success for a lot of clients, and none of them ever celebrated like this.
This is what a couple of free throws can do. They make a team that can't score and lacks a traditional go-to star feel for this one night like a championship has been won. Throughout this strange season the Bulls had been the best of the East, but now there are four teams left and it is Philadelphia that will be playing the Celtics in round two. "We want Boston!" the fans chanted as their new owner laughed at what he had gotten himself into.
Iguodala could warn him that it wasn't so easy as it looked. He was the best player of the franchise after the downfall of Allen Iverson, and since 2003, when the Sixers last won a playoff series, Iguodala had found himself replaced by empty seats and fans who often resorted to booing him out of frustration. He was an all-around player who could do everything well, but they wanted greatness. Had he listened to the gossip then he would have heard dozens of rumors of his impending trade elsewhere. Unfortunately, he did listen to it. The booing made him stronger, but of course it weakened him too. He made 45.1 percent of his free throws in the fourth quarter (23 of 51) this season, and a strong start by his team was followed by a predictable second-half collapse: After leading the Atlantic Division for much of the year, the Sixers barely qualified for the playoffs.
It was natural that the injuries to MVP Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah discouraged Chicago, and to their credit the Sixers took advantage for a 3-1 series lead. Their advantage had grown to 57-45 in Game 6 with 17 minutes remaining when the Bulls began to recover around their tough-minded All-Star small forward Luol Deng, who suffered torn ligaments in his left wrist early this season and yet produced 19 points, 17 rebounds and three assists in 42 minutes; and Richard Hamilton, who was cutting into the lane to stop and lunge for his 19 points as if he was still contending for the Pistons of the previous decade.
When the Bulls concluded their eight-minute, 22-6 run by seizing a fourth-quarter lead of 70-65, the pressure on the younger 76ers was threatening to overwhelm them. They were going to be outrebounded 56-33, they were going to be outscored 29-5 on second-chance opportunities and they were going to be limited to 31 points in the second half. They were going to win all the same, even though no one appeared to want the ball.
That's when Iguodala canned a three to tie the score at 70-70 with 5:50 left.
He scored 20 points and led his team with seven assists on a night when no other Sixer scored more than 14 points or four field goals. More inspiring than any of his numbers was the context in which he produced them. It was the backdrop against which he appeared occasionally brilliant that defined him in full: On the opening play of the game, when he missed his first jump shot, the booing began. It came from a minority, but it was as thin and sharp and ominous as the blade of a knife, and when he missed his second shot he heard more of the same. These were the opening minutes, and they needed him more than any other player, and they were booing him before he could even get started.
This was not atypical of the demanding environment in which he had been raised as a star in this City of Brotherly Whatever. Clearly it toughened him, because throughout this make-or-break night he refused to see himself as many of his fans saw him, even as both teams were panicking in the final seconds. The Sixers, trailing by a point, tried and failed to foul in the backcourt, and the Bulls responded by feeding backup center Omer Asik going to the basket instead of dribbling down the clock with one of their better foul shooters. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau thought Philadelphia center Spencer Hawes was deserving of a flagrant foul with 7.0 seconds remaining when he collared Asik hard to the floor. Instead, Asik missed both free throws and the 6-foo-5 Iguodala grabbed the rebound, turned upcourt and saw nothing between him and the basket but a backpedaling 7-foot Asik.
"Just attack," Iguodala said of his thoughts as he pushed the ball at full speed. "Go right at him and either finish over him or get fouled."
It was the latter. The 76ers were out of timeouts and the whistle didn't blow until Iguodala's attempt at a layup was broken up by Asik with 2.2 seconds remaining in this one-point game that could have gone either way. There was no reason to think Philadelphia would win, based on its horrible record in close games this season and the unreliable shooting of Iguodala in the fourth quarter.
"I changed my thought pattern," he would explain afterward. He received the best advice from elder teammate Tony Battie, who thought of his daughter when he shot free throws. Iguodala had decided toward the end of this season to begin talking to his son. As thousands expected the worse, Iguodala pretended he was teaching him and only him.
"When you're teaching your son how to shoot free throws," he said, `"you
Because no father wants to look bad in front of his son.
When the final horn went off, Iguodala jumped on top of the scorer's table and looked up the crowd towering above him. From where he stood his perspective was skewed as never before. It was as if he was the one looking down upon them, as if he had climbed a mountain and could not believe the glory of the view.