Posted May 8 2012 1:05PM
CHICAGO -- They came into the league eight years ago, one pick apart in the 2004 Draft. Small forwards by trade, they have been solid NBA citizens, team leaders and, coincidentally for the first time this season, members of the Eastern Conference All-Star squad.
Both have gotten paid, as they say in the NBA, and occasionally gotten booed for their eight-figure salaries. Both picked up votes in Defensive Player balloting announced last week. Both rate as coaches' favorites -- by Chicago's Tom Thibodeau and Philadelphia's Doug Collins -- for their two-way reliability and for often being the adult in their respective locker rooms.
Luol Deng and Andre Iguodala are locked in a matchup in their teams' Eastern Conference first-round series that has been tough and figures to get tougher before it ends. In the best of times, this would be a clash that appeals most to basketball purists -- forget the expenses-paid trip to Orlando in February, these guys really aren't stars. They were added to the East squad by conference coaches who appreciate their all-around games and maturity, and who were looking to reward the Bulls and the Sixers for winning so much early in the season with what essentially were ensemble casts.
These are not the best of times, however, for either Deng or Iguodala. The former has played most of the season with a torn ligament in his left wrist. It's a painful injury -- he grimaced when he fell on that arm in Game 4 Sunday in Philadelphia -- that probably will require surgery when Deng is done with A) the Bulls' potentially shorter-than-expected playoff run and B) the London Olympic Games, where Deng will play for Great Britain's national team and serve as an unofficial host for his sport.
The latter is hobbled by tendinitis in his right Achilles. The tightness has limited Iguodala's explosiveness and makes it more difficult to chase around Deng, which remains his primary job and a big reason for Philadelphia's 3-1 edge in the series heading into Game 5 Tuesday at United Center.
|Down 3-1 and without Derrick Rose and likely Joakim Noah, too, the Bulls are attempting to buck the odds. All-time in best-of-seven series, only eight teams have managed to win a series after trailing 3-1.|
After the Sixers' victory in Game 3 Friday over the increasingly hobbled No. 1-seeded Bulls, Collins reviewed and relived each of his player's contributions to the outcome. When he got to Iguodala, the praise was obvious and heartfelt. "I said, 'Guys, Andre Iguodala is out there playing right now with a very sore Achilles. He could very easily come over, sit down and watch. And he knows how important he is to our team, fighting against Luol Deng every possession,' " the Sixers coach said.
Collins invoked one of his many Michael Jordan stories to pay tribute to Iguodala in front of his Philly teammates. "When I was coaching him in Washington the last year there, I think he was 41 years old," the coach told the troops. "And he was the only guy on our team to play all 82 games. I saw him one day with back spasms on the table, he could hardly move. He stayed there all afternoon so he could play. I remember one of the players on the team asked him, 'Are you going to play tonight?' And he said, 'That's what I'm paid to do, isn't it?' "
Iguodala, who was paid $13.5 million this season, actually played in only 62 of the 66 regular-season games, after maxing out at 82 in five of his first seven seasons. The 6-foot-6 forward from Arizona averaged only 12.4 points in the post-lockout schedule, largely by design as Philadephia's roster urged a more balanced attack.
That's not good enough for the Bulls, though. With MVP Derrick Rose (torn left ACL) lost till sometime next season and center Joakim Noah (sprained left ankle) unavailable again Tuesday, Chicago needs scoring. Deng ranked second on Thibodeau's squad during the season (15.3 ppg) but the 6-foot-9 forward from Duke is right there with Iguodala at 10.3 -- each has scored 41 points in a tradeoff Philadelphia is happy to accept.
There is, after all, some history here that encouraged the Sixers as the series began. In two meetings during the season, Deng averaged just 5.5 points when Iguodala was on the floor with him -- which was most of the time -- vs. 9.8 when he wasn't, pro-rated to 36 minutes in NBA.com's Advanced Stats. In 2010-11, Deng's discrepancy was greater: 13.3 points guarded by Iguodala vs. 23.5 guarded by others, per 36.
So what's happened in these four head-to-head meetings in a span of nine days? Deng is at 9.3 points per 36 minutes against Iguodala and has been shadowed by him for 131 of his 143 minutes. Iguodala's offensive stats, as in the past, are less affected: 9.6 vs. Deng per 36 minutes compared to 9.0 in 24 minutes when Deng it out.
If the team results were different -- if the series was 2-2 or 3-1 in favor of Chicago -- the matchup would look different. But with Philadelphia up 3-1, all the little things Iguodala is doing are getting noticed and appreciated. For example, after Jrue Holiday hit the first of two consecutive 3-pointers deep into the fourth quarter of Game 4, Iguodala urged Collins to run the same play again. Same result -- Holiday, left wing, from 27 feet -- and it gave the Sixers an 80-73 cushion they managed to the end.
"That's Dre being a leader," Holiday said. "I guess he saw I was in a groove ... With the playoffs being a little crazy, especially for us, Dre has been that guy to really pump up the whole team."
For Deng, the little things don't matter much given the Bulls' big problems. If he isn't producing the points the Bulls need -- overcompensating for Rose and Noah, even -- then the burden falls almost entirely to Carlos Boozer, Rip Hamilton and C.J. Watson, who haven't been all that consistent for various reasons either. And in Game 4, Boozer took 24 of Chicago's 85 shots and Watson 18, with Deng tied at 11 with Taj Gibson. Deng averaged 14.0 during the season, just 3.8 behind Rose.
It doesn't appear Thibodeau's offense is helping Deng at the moment any more than Deng is helping the offense. The longer he and Iguodala play to a familiar, worn-down, beaten-up push, the more Philadelphia wins that matchup. And soon enough, the series.
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