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