Andre Iguodala got a rude welcome in his first return to Denver, but he and the Golden State Warriors showed defensive grit and flashed just enough offense to send his detractors home without the satisfaction of vengeance.
The Warriors knocked off the Denver Nuggets by a final score of 89-81 thanks to a 25-15 fourth-quarter surge that was punctuated by a huge Iguodala triple at the 3:18 mark. That three-point shot expanded the Dubs' tenuous lead from two to five, and Denver never got within three from that point on.
Iguodala finished with 12 points, six rebounds and two assists on 5-of-10 shooting.
Really, it's not all that surprising that the Nuggets fans booed him. He left a team that was falling apart from the top down and took less money to join the Warriors—a club that had knocked Denver out of the 2012-13 playoffs.
There was also that messy business about Iggy being the "mole" who alerted Warriors coach Mark Jackson to some of Denver's less-than-sporting efforts to get in a few physical shots on Stephen Curry during that hotly contested postseason series. Though Iguodala and Jackson have both downplayed those rumors, per Matt Moore of CBS Sports, Denver loyalists apparently still haven't gotten past them.
In addition, it's probably irksome for Nuggets supporters to see a guy they never truly appreciated getting the love his all-around game deserves someplace else. And besides, booing is what Nuggets fans do.
They lay it on Carmelo Anthony whenever he returns to the Mile High City, so Iguodala was certainly prepared for some throaty ill will. And to his credit, he managed to win over a few open-minded spectators with his play, per Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Andre Iguodala is getting loudly booed on his every touch, but after he made a turnaround jumper, he could hear a couple of claps.— Rusty Simmons (@Rusty_SFChron) December 24, 2013
Anyway, there are a number of reasons behind the boos. But deep down, I'm guessing that much of the discontent stems from the fact that Iguodala so clearly makes the Warriors a better team than the Nuggets.
Seeing a guy skip town for greener pastures is bad, but watching him transform a rival into an even bigger threat is worse.
New Digs, Big Impact
It's not sensible to use this game to make a quality judgment on both the Warriors and the Nuggets. Denver was without JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari. But the Dubs have a significantly better per-game differential on the season, and their defense is far more consistent.
Based on those facts, we can credibly argue that Golden State is the superior team.
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Iguodala is right in the middle of that improved Warriors stopping power, and he shares responsibility with interior curmudgeon Andrew Bogut for officially turning Golden State into a defense-first outfit. Everyone loves to talk about the Dubs' shooting and pace, but the truth is that they're defined by their defense.
The numbers go a long way toward explaining Iguodala's massive impact. When he's on the court, the Warriors average 108.5 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would rank third in the league, per NBA.com. But when he sits, that figure dips all the way to 99.1, which is basically on par with the Orlando Magic's No. 24-ranked offense.
On the other end, the Dubs post a defensive rating of 93.8 points allowed per 100 possessions with Iguodala on the floor, a figure that ranks just behind the Indiana Pacers' league-best 93.4. As you might suspect, when Iguodala sits, Golden State permits a much more generous 102.4 points per 100 possessions.
More basically, the Warriors are 11-6 when Iguodala has been in the lineup. During the 11 games he missed with a bad hamstring, they went 5-7.
Iggy gives Golden State a legitimate second point guard to share the ball-handling load with Curry, which frees up the sharpshooter to terrify defenses as a mobile spot-up option. Plus, Iguodala allows the Warriors' weak-side attack to exploit recovering help defenders, and he generally keeps the ball moving much more effectively when he's on the court.
The numbers above tell the defensive tale, but aesthetically, Golden State's defense goes from stout to scary with Iguodala prowling the hardwood. He deflects passes like few others and is truly elite as both an on-ball defender and helper. He covers tons of ground and has borderline supernatural instincts.
In fact, Iguodala does so much for the Warriors in so many different areas that his own coach struggles to explain just how valuable he is.
Per Simmons in the Chronicle:
"It's his understanding of the game, his playmaking ability, his ballhandling," Jackson said before he realized that he hadn't answered the question about the single most important thing Iguodala adds to the team. "I guess that's more than one thing. He does all of that and more for us."
Full of Sound and Fury, Not Getting Iggy Back
Give the Nuggets credit. They survived an offseason that saw both the Coach and Executive of the Year leave town, and they're dealing with some rotten injury luck. Through it all, they're still 14-13 and can look forward to a real boost when their banged-up frontcourt finally gets healthy.
They might be a playoff threat yet.
But the Dubs got the best of the Nuggets in their chippy playoff series last spring, and now the Warriors also have Denver's former best player.
Denver can boo all it wants, but it won't bring Iguodala back.