2019 NBA Finals: Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors

Iguodala's importance suddenly shifts to the Finals forefront

Former Finals MVP awaits Kawhi Leonard's best shot after a (relatively) subdued opener

* Tonight on ABC: Game 2, Warriors vs. Raptors (8 ET)

TORONTO — We now know there’s a job equal to guarding peak LeBron James in the NBA Finals, and we know this because the player who did that is now older, creakier and assigned to defend the successor to LeBron in the current NBA Finals.

Andre Iguodala is suddenly an unlikely candidate for Most Important Player in a series the Raptors lead 1-0. The Warriors are bracing for a strong Game 2 response from Kawhi Leonard, who by his own postseason standards played meekly in the series opener.

It is Iguodala who represents the front line of defense for Kawhi, it is Iguodala who isn’t completely healthy, and it is Iguodala who is now 35 and not quite the same force who made LeBron work the last four Junes and earned Finals MVP honors mostly for that defense in 2015.

With the Warriors preparing to play yet another game without Kevin Durant, there’s a burden and a large responsibility placed on Iguodala, whose minutes and production must rise.

He wouldn’t be in this position with a healthy Durant. In that scenario, Durant would play nearly 40 minutes and draw a good portion of the Kawhi assignment and Iguodala would come off the bench. Things changed. And Durant isn’t returning from his strained calf until Game 3, if that. And the Warriors are fearful of falling behind 2-0 and allowing the Raptors to take momentum to Oakland.

Which means they could use a bit of 2015 from Iguodala.

“I’m older,” Iguodala said, with a grin. “But I hope everything else is up to par.”

He anticipates what everyone anticipates: Kawhi turning up a notch in Game 2 by attacking more. Kawhi might need to, unless Pascal Siakam is headed for another 32-point, 14-for-17 shooting game (perhaps unlikely) or the Warriors keep giving Marc Gasol a ton of open looks (also unlikely).

In the absence of those repeat performances, it’ll be up to Kawhi to develop a more aggressive mentality — similar to the one he kept in the first three playoff rounds when he bulldozed through Orlando, Philly and Milwaukee — to help the Raptors seize control of this series.

The Warriors, based on their Game 1 strategy, have decided to prevent Kawhi from beating them. Which means the task of guarding him will be done largely by committee and with as many different looks as possible. It will be done with a combination of players with toughness (Draymond Green), 1-on-1 tenacity (Klay Thompson) and length (Iguodala).

“He’s a special player who has shown what he’s capable of doing if given the opportunity,” said Iguodala. “He’s been able to do damage from the perimeter, get to the basket, shoot the ball at a high clip.

“He has all the tricks to keep you guessing and try to throw you off balance. You’re not going to stop players like that, but make him spend as much energy as possible.”

When Kawhi stares at the double-teams, the one constant face will belong to Iguodala, and it has been a strange trip for the 15-year veteran. Iguodala is a self-made defender, one who grew into that role gradually after spending his first seven seasons as a primary scorer with the Sixers.

As he became older and wiser, his impact spread; Iguodala developed his passing and rebounding instincts, both above-average for a small forward, to balance his scoring. Once he joined the Warriors, his scoring average dropped almost every season, to the point where Iguodala, who once averaged 19.9 points in a season, is an almost reluctant shooter who only takes aim when absolutely necessary.

His defense became his trademark and, because of his ability to defend multiple positions, the Warriors assigned him to the other team’s biggest challenge. Coach Steve Kerr often singles out Iguodala as the smartest player on the team.

And Iguodala’s watershed moment came during the 2015 Finals, when he was inserted into the starting lineup and held LeBron below 40-percent shooting, critical to the Warriors’ first title under Kerr.

Iguodala, it seemed, could defend anyone except Father Time, and this season he averaged just 23 minutes a night partly because Kerr was fearful of putting more mileage than necessary on Iguodala’s limbs. This was the correct strategy, because during these playoffs, Iguodala regained his bounce and compensated for the loss of Durant by playing smart defense on James Harden and then providing help on Damian Lillard.

Against Kawhi, you’ve got to be locked in mentally. It’s always difficult going against top players — even if you’re completely healthy.

Andre Iguodala

But this latest test is on another level, especially with Iguodala dealing with an aching quad that benched him for one game in the conference finals.

“You’ve got injuries and pain but you play through it,” he said. “It’s your job to help the team win. And against Kawhi, you’ve got to be locked in mentally. It’s always difficult going against top players even if you’re completely healthy, so you don’t complain. It’s business as usual.”

Iguodala said Kawhi had en effective game despite scoring just 23 points in Game 1 — seven below his playoff average.

“He was able to make the right passes out of the traps, found Gasol a few times,” said Iguodala. “For us, it’s just our backline defense, being able to rotate when he throws it to the open man.

“That’s when you have a special player, someone who can draw two players on him constantly. It’s kind of a game of chess we’re playing against him.”

Although LeBron is the superior player from an offensive standpoint, especially with volume shooting and passing, Iguodala believes Kawhi demands the same level of respect.

“They’re two very tough players to guard, especially with their strength and ability to impose their will,” he said. “You have to have the right mindset. They both have their own touch that makes their game special, LeBron with his passing ability and making his teammates effective on the perimeter, Kawhi with his ability to get to this spots in the midrange, get to the basket and draw the foul. It’s a different type of look. But it’s tough as well.”

These are new times for the Warriors. They’ve never started on the road in The Finals, never trailed by two games (which would be the case if they lose Sunday), and are playing a team other than Cleveland and therefore dealing with an unfamiliar foe.

Green had a rough Game 1, with poor decisions and more fouls than baskets and Siakam’s showing. Thompson floated in and out of shooting rhythm. DeMarcus Cousins was understandably rusty. And, of course, no Durant.

All of the above can and must change (with the exception of Durant) if the Warriors hope to achieve their goal of taking at least one game in Toronto.

And yet Kawhi could also figure out the Warriors’ traps and schemes.

That leaves Golden State on guard, quite literally, with Iguodala. The toughest task in The Finals begins with him; how will it end?

“You take the challenge each game,” he said, “and hope it brings the confidence that you can do some good.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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