Andre Iguodala will be key for Warriors to get past James Harden, Rockets

Andre Iguodala will be key for Warriors to get past James Harden, Rockets

LOS ANGELES – It’s late Friday night, an hour after the Warriors banished the Los Angeles Clippers, and their attention has turned toward the next opponent, the one team that firmly believes it will knock the crown off the heads of the back-to-back champions.

The Houston Rockets are next on the schedule, in the Western Conference semifinals, which means confronting James Harden, the reigning MVP who has a reasonable chance to win it again.

Containing Harden is crucial to slowing the Rockets, and the Warriors believe they have someone up to the task.

Andre Iguodala and his paycheck are on the clock.

It’s not that he doesn’t earn his keep under normal circumstances. It’s that Iguodala’s value increases in the postseason and exponentially so when the Warriors face the Rockets.

Iguodala spent six games against Los Angeles preparing for the matchup. He was assigned to Clippers guard Lou Williams, who is a miniature version of Harden. Though Harden is five inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, both he and Williams like to go left, are clever at getting to the line and excel at finding seams in a defense that lead to buckets.

“It kind of helps because they’re similar in some ways,” Iguodala told NBC Sports Bay Area. “But they’re different in other ways. Lou is not really a 3-point shooter like James. He doesn’t have as many attempts. A lot of James’ game is from the perimeter, shooting 3s.

“But they’re both really crafty at getting foul calls, especially when getting into the paint. You have to be careful with that.”

Harden’s presence – as well as that of LeBron James in Cleveland – was among the factors that compelled the Warriors two years ago to make a decision that raised a few eyebrows around the NBA. Iguodala became a free agent in July 2017 and was in contact with at least four teams: the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Kings and the Rockets. Though leaving the Warriors was not desirable, it was conceivable.

After initially offering Iguodala a three-year deal worth $36 million, with only a partial guarantee in the third year, the Warriors not only re-signed him but did so for a fully guaranteed three years, at $48 million.

Some wondered if this was too much money or too long a commitment – or both – for someone who would turn 36 in the final year of the deal. CEO Joe Lacob, who made the final call on the contract, believes in Iguodala and there is no doubt that general manager Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr saw him as essential to their roster.

The last time the Warriors and Rockets met in the postseason was 11 months ago, in the Western Conference finals. Harden shot 41.3 percent from the field, 26.1 percent beyond the arc, and the Warriors won in seven games.

The teams didn’t meet in 2017 but they did a year earlier, with the Warriors winning the first-round series in five games. Harden shot 41 percent overall, 31 percent from deep.

The Warriors wouldn’t mind seeing similar numbers, beginning with Game 1 on Sunday at Oracle Arena.

“It’s not just me, though,” Iguodala said of defending Harden. “I might be out front, but I need guys behind me”

Iguodala, however, is the primary defender on Harden. Klay Thompson gets his turns, too, but if the game is in the balance, look for Iguodala to get the job, just as he did against Williams in LA.

“It’s tricky,” Iguodala said. “You want to force him left, but James can get to his right and go to his step-back. He likes that a lot. So it’s another chess match.”

Postseason games are a succession of chess matches. That’s one of the reasons Iguodala does so well. His regular-season impact comes and goes, as does his availability. But when the playoffs come and the weather warms – and there are no back-to-backs to aggravate his achy knees – it’s money time.

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If he can help the Warriors get past Harden and the Rockets, Iguodala’s salary will look like a bargain.

Why Steph Curry's gesture at Oracle Arena finale touched Monta Ellis

Why Steph Curry's gesture at Oracle Arena finale touched Monta Ellis

For the final regular-season game in Oracle Arena history, Warriors star Steph Curry arrived rocking a No. 8 Monta Ellis jersey.

"Obviously, a lot of history that Monta was able to be a part of with the 'We Believe' Warriors era, and when I got here my rookie year, he was that guy," Curry told reporters back on April 7. "And I think for me, in terms of representing him on the last game, it meant a lot because we were in that backcourt together. 

"When he was traded it was a tough time in terms of the transition of the organization and things like that. I wanted to pay, obviously, honor to him in terms of his story, coming out of high school and doing what he was able to do. He was an Oakland fan, Warrior fan. Beloved guy."

Shortly after he got wind of Curry's gesture, Monta reacted on Instagram. But he recently expanded on his feelings.

"The biggest thing that I always wanted to do, like, when I leave this Earth, is know that I impacted somebody in some shape or form, no matter if it was on or off the basketball court," he told Marcus Thompson of The Athletic. "That’s my biggest thing.

"So to hear that from him, man, it just means I did what I was supposed to do. I made an impact on somebody’s life before I left here.”

During the 2009-10 season -- Curry's rookie campaign -- Ellis averaged a career-high 25.5 points per game.

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The following year, he racked up 24.1 points and 5.6 assists per contest, while Curry registered 18.6 points and 5.8 assists per night.

Although Monta was disappointed with how the franchise handled his trade to Milwaukee in March 2012, he has nothing but love for Dub Nation.

“That’s my second home,” he told Thompson. “I love Oakland. The fans are like no other. I’ve never seen any other fans in America like Oracle.”

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Why Steve Kerr’s message to enjoy Warriors' dynasty should’ve been heeded

Why Steve Kerr’s message to enjoy Warriors' dynasty should’ve been heeded

Steve Kerr knew this season would be different, how could he not?

Still, even the Warriors head coach couldn't have predicted how drastically different his sixth season in the Bay would be. 

Kevin Durant left to become a Net. Klay Thompson likely will miss the entire season rehabbing his torn ACL. Then, Steph Curry broke his left hand and will be re-evaluated in February and D'Angelo Russell missed nine of the first 21 games with a thumb sprain. This has left Kerr to lead a group of rookies, role players and reclamation projects through the NBA season.

Dynasties aren't built to last. Kerr, a six-time NBA champion as a player and coach, knows that. He knows how fleeting championship runs can be. The Warriors have gone from dreaded bully thirsting for June champagne to a champion laying on the canvas as a 12-month recharge washes over them.

“No,” Kerr laughed when NBC Sports Chicago's K.C. Johnson asked if he thought anyone savored last season's run when he told them to. “It’s human nature to think we’re going to win it again and we’re going to keep going forever. Life changes quickly.

“I talked not only to the media and our fans but to our team. Last year there were several times when I said, ‘This is going to be our best chance to win a championship.’ We’ve got an incredible opportunity that may never come up again. That’s something that’s important for everybody to realize---fans, management, players. It is lightning in a bottle. You can do everything perfectly and you still may not get to where you think you might be.”

The Warriors will be back. That's the plan at least. This season serves as a reboot point. A mere pitstop in a dynasty that has been paused not concluded.

But plans, even those best laid, rarely go as drawn up. Kerr knows that. That's why he implored everyone from Curry to those sitting in the nosebleeds at Oracle Arena to enjoy one of the most impressive runs in NBA history.

You never know when things will come back, and things surely never will be the way they were when Curry and Warriors were pulverizing teams into oblivion en route to five-straight NBA Finals appearances.

That ride, as Kerr predicted, came to an end.

A new one has begun.

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The Warriors sit at 4-19. Rookies Eric Paschall and Ky Bowman have played well, as has veteran swingman Glenn Robinson III. But it's unlikely to amount to many wins this season. It's instead about teaching, about growth for next season when a fully loaded Warriors team will enact its vengeance on an NBA that is taking pleasure in pummeling the wounded champions. 

That will be a sweet moment for Kerr and the Warriors, should it come.

Pleasure, in sports and in life is, fleeting. Titles come. Confetti falls. Elation hits. Then, it's on to next year, and one day, before you've blinked, things are different. The run is over and a new course has been charted.

That course is expected to get the Warriors back to the top soon. If it does, expect everyone to heed Kerr's advice and enjoy the ride.