The NBA Finals turned on the matchup between Cleveland's one-man gang and a cerebral veteran who hadn't started in 13 months.
This story appears in the June 22, 2015 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Andre Iguodala lay in bed after Game 2 of the NBA Finals and his fiancée, Christina Gutierrez, placed a hand on his stomach. “Your skin,” she said, “feels hot.” Several hours had passed since Iguodala left Oakland’s Oracle Arena, but he was still burning up, as if he had just sprinted off the court. He wasn’t sick, but he popped a Tylenol and set the thermostat in his house to a frosty 60°. When the Warriors forward returned home five days later from Cleveland, he found that his air-conditioning unit had broken, maddening because his Finals fever had not. He joked that he shaved his head in hopes of cooling down. Iguodala’s condition may sound implausible, but one league trainer claims it is common for stress hormones to rise in demanding situations, causing spikes in body temperature. “It’s like you’re a car,” Iguodala says, “and your engine is overheating.” Such is the strain required to survive 48-minute collisions with the turbo-powered tank known as LeBron James.
Iguodala is 11 months older, two inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter than the most punishing player in the world. He entered the NBA out of Arizona a year after James, drafted ninth by the 76ers in 2004, and immediately began composing a mental manual on how to halt him. The 6' 6", 215-pound Iguodala developed a similar guide for every small forward, but James was a particularly compelling subject, and they faced off regularly in the Eastern Conference. With each matchup Iguodala added another page, until he knew James’s tendencies as well as his own. “That book is crazy big now,” says Iguodala, 31. “What he does in the post, what he does when he goes left, what he does when he comes at me like this.” Iguodala wriggles his shoulders, miming James’s open-floor shimmy. He has spent more than a decade preparing for the assignment that will define his career.
Every possession is different, except for these undermanned Cavaliers, who have been making every possession essentially the same. James either dribbles the ball up the left side or catches it there. He either faces Iguodala or backs him down. He studies the shot clock, bleeding it to a single red digit, and finally he either rises or bull-rushes. If he fires, Iguodala contests, and if he charges, Iguodala braces. James dips his head when he drives, a signal that he has abandoned the pass and is headed to the hoop. That’s the cue for a second Warrior to slide over and help. If the help comes too early, James will hit a big man diving to the rim. If it comes too late, James will make a layup. And if it repeatedly comes from the same person, or the same place, James will diagnose and dissect the coverage. “The timing is critical,” Golden State assistant coach Ron Adams says. “You have to respect the genius of what he’s doing.”
Only three players in the last 30 years have completed a Finals game with at least 36 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. That’s the line James was averaging through the first five games of the 2015 Finals. Three times he reached 40 points, twice he had triple doubles and once he did both. “Don’t overreact,” Iguodala kept reminding himself, the lesson on page 1 of his King James bible. Failure is inevitable. Success is relative. At week’s end James was on pace for the best Finals performance in the history of the league, yet his primary defender was being serenaded with MVP chants. The crowd recognized that no one could have done better than Iguodala and most would have fared far worse.
Besides, the Warriors were prevailing in the only ledger that mattered. They led 3–2, one win from their first title in 40 years. As Iguodala left Oracle after Game 5, steaming under a dark green sweater, an attendant offered him a cup of water. Iguodala eyed the liquid suspiciously. “Did you do something to it?” he asked. Guarding James can make a person paranoid. Iguodala turned it down. “I can’t take any chances,” he said. “We’ve come too far.”
Myers had three days to unload $24 million. “The hardest three days of work I’ve ever done,” he recalls. “There were so many twists, so many machinations.” He kept telling Kristen, “We’re not getting this guy,” but he couldn’t bring himself to hang up the phone and hit the beach. On July 5, Myers found a place to dump the money, agreeing to send three expiring contracts and two future first-round picks to the Jazz. He still hadn’t shaved when the Warriors held a press conference to unveil their missing piece, a playmaking wing with a reputation for deep thought and fierce defense.
As a rookie in Philadelphia, Iguodala sidled up to veteran Aaron McKie. “He told me what it was like guarding Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter,” Iguodala recalls. “He said, ‘They are going to get their shots. They are going to get their points. But learn their tendencies, what they don’t like, and make it as tough on them as you can.’” Iguodala memorized where opponents held the ball, so he could slap down on it, and kept track of moves they added over the summer. He heard coaches holler, “Get to the hole!” and developed a strategy ahead of its time: baiting stars into midrange shots and contesting with his endless arms. Against lesser players, he cheated off, gambling for steals and chasing rebounds.
“He has always valued the little things: the rotations, the reads, the footwork,” says Warriors assistant Luke Walton, Iguodala’s teammate at Arizona. “When you care about all that, plus you have crazy length and athleticism, you’re dangerous.” Iguodala grew up in Springfield, Ill., idolizing Bulls stopper Scottie Pippen. Like Pippen, Iguodala could score, but defense was his specialty. The complex schemes and detailed scouting reports appealed to his cerebral nature. This is a player who has been reading The Nat Turner Insurrection Trials—written by a legal scholar about slave trials in the 1800s—during the Finals. His mind wanders, though, to sequences with James that he should have handled differently.
When Iguodala arrived at Golden State, coaches were initially startled by his unorthodox defensive technique. Instead of crowding his man, Iguodala often allows space, enabling him to deflect passes, strip steals and close out hard on the midrange jumpers. After two weeks of training camp the staff understood and appreciated his approach. “You have to let special players use special talents,” says Pelicans assistant Darren Erman, the defensive mastermind who was with the Warriors last season. “Andre is probably the most instinctual defender in the last 10 years.”
Steve Kerr succeeded Mark Jackson as coach this season and sent Iguodala to the bench, a move more psychological than tactical. Kerr wanted to boost the confidence of Harrison Barnes, 23, even if it meant bruising a former All‑Star’s ego. An endearing curmudgeon, Iguodala grew surly enough in camp that one assistant said, “He’s pouting. Put him in the corner.” Bruce Fraser, the Warriors’ player development coach and de facto spiritual adviser, offered empathy instead. “I’m fine,” Iguodala kept telling Fraser, who was not convinced. “How could he be fine?” Fraser wonders. “It’s like when your wife tells you she’s fine. You can’t just let it pass. We couldn’t just lose him.”
The Warriors started 21–2, and Iguodala gradually reengaged, taking ownership of the second unit. He averaged 26.9 minutes, a career low, in part because Kerr wanted him fresh for the playoffs. Golden State, stacked with versatile defenders, had no shortage of candidates to throw in front of James: Barnes, Thompson, Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston all took turns, but when the Cavs went up 2–1, it became clear that only Iguodala was up to the task.
The night before Game 4, 28-year-old Nick U’Ren watched video of last year’s Finals in his room at the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland. U’Ren, Kerr’s special assistant who is usually rebounding for Curry or putting together iPod playlists for practice, noticed that the Spurs swung their series against the Heat by plugging small forward Boris Diaw into the starting lineup. U’Ren called Walton and suggested doing the same with Iguodala. At 3 a.m., they texted Kerr, and the staff reached a consensus over breakfast.
Iguodala, stationed across from James, had come full circle. When he broke into the NBA, the league was bogged down with isolation offenses, none more stilted than the one-man band in Philly that featured Allen Iverson. “I’d laugh, catch some lobs, and watch him score 50,” Iguodala once said. As Iguodala entered his prime, coaches discovered more efficient methods, emphasizing space and movement. Iso-ball was a relic, never to return, until Iguodala looked up two weeks ago and saw James thundering down that left sideline.
From the front office to the floor, 11 former members of the Suns are in the Finals. They are coaches (like Golden State’s Alvin Gentry and Jarron Collins), executives (like Cleveland’s GM, David Griffin, and director of player administration, Raja Bell) and players (like Warriors guard Leandro Barbosa and Cavaliers swingman James Jones). All are disciples of Mike D’Antoni and the fast-breaking, ball-hopping, paint-clearing, seven-seconds-or-less offense that has spread from Phoenix to every corner of the NBA. “Mike was a visionary,” says Kerr, who used to be D’Antoni’s GM. “He changed the league.” The last three champions—San Antonio, Miami and Dallas—took hints from the Suns with their small lineups and incessant pick-and-rolls. “That’s what everyone is moving toward,” says Bell. “And then here we come going straight grind-it-out iso with one guy.”
The Cavaliers wanted to play like the Warriors, which is to say, they wanted to play like the Suns. They surrounded James with one rim protector, Timofey Mozgov, and a cadre of shooters. Then power forward Kevin Love dislocated his left shoulder in the first round of the playoffs and point guard Kyrie Irving fractured his left kneecap during Game 1 in Oakland. James, sans two All-Stars, was down to four guys from the fringes. “We had to reinvent ourselves,” says Cleveland assistant Jim Boylan.
They traveled back in time, to an era when the team’s best player held the ball for 20 seconds and only then decided what to do with it. “Even 15 years ago, in the muck of the Eastern Conference, you never saw this,” says ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who steered the Knicks through that muck to the 1999 Finals. “You’d have to go to Charles Barkley maybe—back, back, backing in.” The approach, while antiquated, was inspired. The Cavaliers stalled the Warriors’ breakneck pace. They reduced possessions against a more talented opponent. And they increased opportunities for offensive rebounds, starting the cycle all over again. It was the basketball equivalent of a triple option keeping a spread offense off the field.
The slow-motion system allowed the Cavaliers to steal breathers—except James, of course. At week’s end he had logged 228 of 250 possible minutes, and his usage rate dwarfed any in Finals history. Rest was elusive. Last Saturday night James took teammates to an IMAX theatre in San Francisco for a 3D showing of Jurassic World, sneaking in once the lights had dimmed and out before the credits rolled. The following afternoon he lay on a massage table behind a grease board in the visiting locker room at Oracle, four hands kneading his back and legs. His response was astounding—in Game 5, Cleveland made 32 field goals, and James scored or assisted 26 of them—but still not enough. “What he’s doing is superhuman,” Van Gundy says. “Even if he just wins two games, I think it’s his greatest accomplishment.”
James, who prizes playmaking and efficiency, found the experience uncomfortable. His disdain for solo acts led him to Miami, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and back to Cleveland, with Irving and others. “I’m so outside the box right now,” he said after Game 3. “I’m not O.K. with it. But this is a different challenge.” James seeks talented colleagues, and yet he does some of his best work with scraps. His vaunted team at St. Mary–St. Vincent High in Akron, Ohio, was not loaded with Division I prospects. His 66-victory Cavaliers of team 2008–09 depended on Boobie Gibson and Delonte West. Even the Heat, when they won 27 games in a row two seasons ago, often flourished with Wade and Bosh on the bench. “It’s the LeBron effect,” says Cavs forward Tristan Thompson, who averaged 5.6 offensive boards in the first five games of the Finals. “He takes guys to places they’ve never been.”
James led Cleveland to its first Finals win and then its first home Finals win. But the plan was to deliver the city’s first championship in a half-century, and as he headed home for Game 6, Iguodala was perched in his path. The lineup change altered the series in a few fundamental ways. It made the Warriors smaller, pressuring the Cavaliers to downsize, and faster, raising the tempo. It also forced James to see more of Iguodala. Despite his outlandish totals James did not hit half his shots in any of the first five games, and twice he shot below 32%. He was doing what his team needed, but so was Iguodala.
On the way out of Oracle Arena and back to Cleveland, Iguodala paused to pass along the name of the next book in his queue. It is about starting a business in the current economy, not stopping a tank in the NBA Finals, but the title works for either topic: The Hard Thing About Hard Things.