AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — He made four of the 15 shots he attempted.
He turned the ball over four times.
Take your pick from Andre Iguodala's hit list of embarrassing moments, for there were several last night. He airballed his first shot. He dribbled the ball off his own body and out of bounds with 2 minutes, 28 seconds left in the game, the Sixers holding a four-point lead. The most memorable, though, was when he wound up for a first-quarter slam and hit the backboard with it, the ball caroming to halfcourt, ending in a slam dunk on the other end.
"Did you think you would be sitting on a podium right now?" the Sixers forward was asked as his postgame press conference began last night.
"Nooo," he said, wearing the grin of someone who had escaped a practical joke.
He was there for what he did at the end of the Sixers' 90-86 victory over the Detroit Pistons in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series. It's what sports is all about, the end, especially this time of the year. Iguodala finished with 16 points, because he heeded his coach's entreaties to keep attacking the hole. It put him on the line 10 times, 11 if you count the extra try he got because of a Pistons lane violation. He made eight free throws, and all were huge, especially the last three. Above all, it sealed a victory as unlikely as his struggles, and at least implied that Detroit's formula for beating this young team — shutting down their highest-profile player — might lack potency.
Because the young guys did not act all that young last night, and the reserves acted like starters. Willie Green finished with 17 points in 28 minutes. Thaddeus Young scored 10. Reggie Evans, who may have benefited most from the added attention to Iguodala, had 14 huge rebounds and 11 points. The Sixers took punch after punch from their more-seasoned foe, tiptoed to the brink of self-destruction, but repeatedly scurried away from it with the fearless energy of mischievous children.
"It's not that we lost the game," Detroit coach Flip Saunders said. "They beat us. There is no question about it."
It wouldn't have happened without Iguodala's two big rebounds at the end, without 45 minutes, 40 seconds of his pure all-out effort. It wouldn't have happened without the three free throws he made in the final 11.1 seconds — including the sealing pair with 7 seconds left.
"What was it like, walking the court those last seconds?" he was asked.
"I just tried to think something simple," he said. "Like, 'Just breathe.'"
It's what makes elite athletes elite, that ability. For most of the game, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups tag-teamed in defending Iguodala the way the Flyers have defended Alex Ovechkin. They bumped him at every chance. They face-guarded him at times. They chased him around on offense, in and out of screens and picks, tried to frustrate him, tried to make him quit.
The statistics suggested they succeeded.
The free throws in the end suggested they did not.
"I've had games before where we had to make free throws to close out the game," Iguodala said. "And I've had bad free-throw shooting nights. When you have a coach like Maurice Cheeks who keeps putting confidence in each and every one of his guys, all that fear is out of the way because your coach is behind you."
Earlier, Cheeks said he "was enjoying the game" as the clock wore down in that frantic fourth quarter, and several Sixers commended his bemused manner when the team retreated to the locker room at halftime down by 13. It's starting to become clear: This team is a direct reflection of its coach, and the evidence is most clearly seen in its resilience.
There were plenty of examples last night, but Iguodala, one of the few Sixers who has played in a playoff, might have been Exhibit A. Walking back to the visitor's locker room, he was talking about the free-throw games played at PCOM.
"Two guys per team," he said. "Six baskets. You shoot 20 per basket. Guys with least amount of misses win. The winner gets $100.
"Really, that's more nerve-racking than this."
As long as he continues to think that, this series may continue to surprise. *
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