PHILADELPHIA—Rick and Ilsa of ”Casablanca’’ fame will always have Paris…. and Andre Iguodala, a child scorned around these parts for years by fans who often wish he still wasn’t here, will always have the two free throws that sent the Philadelphia 76ers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
It will be a moment in time not soon forgotten.
“Andre’s struggled all year at the foul line,’’ said jubilant Sixers coach Doug Collins, holding his grandson on his lap while he tried to make sense of the 79-78 win his No. 8 seeded club had just pulled off to eliminate the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in six games. “But he stepped up and made two free throws to win a playoff series.
“I know how much it means to him and to this team. I really don’t know what to say. I don’t know how we won this game.
“We just found a way.’’
They did it with Iguodala, in his signature moment as a Sixer, stepping up like never before.
The crazy nature of a game in which the Sixers had surged to as much as a 59-47 lead midway through the third quarter, before the Bulls stormed back to go ahead, had left neither team with a timeout after Collins burned his last one with 25.8 seconds left. Omer Asik had just thrown down a dunk to put the Bulls up, 78-75.
If the plan had been to go for the 3-pointer and the tie, it changed when Thaddeus Young found an opening in the Bulls’ rugged defense and drove for a layup at the 12.8 mark. On the ensuing inbounds play, Jrue Holiday tried to foul C.J, Watson, an 81 percent foul shooter, but the whistles were silent. Instead, Watson crossed midcourt and got the ball to Asik, who was hogtied by Spencer Hawes as his layup spilled out with 7.0 seconds left.
That meant Asik, who shoots a sorry 46% at the line but was 4-for-5 to this point,, went to the stripe with a chance to all but put it away or at the least assure overtime. Instead, he bricked both shots, Iguodala snatching the rebound and driving the length of the court against a backpedaling Asik who made contact on his attempted layup with 2.2 seconds left.
A raucous Wells Fargo Center held its collective breath, since late game foul shooting has haunting Iguodala all season. Apparently that’s all changed since a conversation with veteran big man Tony Battie has helped ‘Dre relax.
“I changed my thought pattern a little bit,’ said Iguodala, who hit nothing but net on both shots. “I talked to Tony Battie after Game 2, who said to think about something else.
“So I started thinking of my son when I shoot free throws. That makes it makes it a lot easier, It’s like I’m teaching him to shoot free throws and when you‘re teaching him you can’t miss.
“Once I bend my knees I was pretty much good all the way.’’
Once both shots swished through, it seemed to surprise the Bulls, who—without a timeout– were forced to settle for Watson’s three-quarter court prayer that hit the back of the rim and bounded harmlessly away, while the Sixers mobbed Iguodala and celebrated clinching a playoff series at home for the first time since their Game 7 win over the Bucks sent them to the 2001 NBA Finals.
For a player who’d never been beyond the first round, who has been depicted by many here as the guy who’s been holding this franchise back and who often evokes audible groans when he raises up for his jump shot, Iguodala took it all pretty much in stride, “I’m happy for myself but not as happy as I am for my teammates,’’ said Iguodala, who led all scorers with 20 points, while handing out seven assists. “That’s something I’m trying to get better at in my career
“What kind of mark I’ll leave for my teammates.’’
For much of the night it didn’t appear victory would come down to Iguodala or any Sixer needing such heroics, despite the Sixers getting pounded 56-33 on the boards and not even getting an offensive rebound until the fourth quarter. But after knocking down half their shots in the first half to build a 48-40 halftime lead, which grew to 59-47 with 5:03 remaining in the third, the Sixers fell into one of those offensive swoons that has marked this series.
By the start of the fourth a 23-6 surge had vaulted the Bulls—who battled ferociously even without fallen warriors Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah—to a 70-65 lead, though Tom Thibodeau kept burning timeouts trying to reverse the momentum. But just when it appeared the teams would be heading back to Michael Jordan’s old stomping grounds for a decisive Game 7, the Sixers did an about-face, which allowed them to revise their weekend travel itinerary from Chicago to Boston.
“I didn’t get a sense, `Here we go again,’’ said Iguodala, referring to the Sixers’ pattern all season of letting late leads slip away and losing close games. “Every time they were cutting into the lead, we just said ‘Keep pushing.’
“Doug always says `When you get in tough situations how are you guys gonna respond?’’’
Collins, who hadn’t won a playoff round as a coach since 1989 with the Bulls, knows the feeling. Once upon a time he nearly became a national hero when he sank the two free throws that would’ve won the gold medal for the United States in the 1972 Munich Olympics if not for a still disputed finish that awarded the Russians three chances to score the game winner.
“Mine was a little different,’’ said Collins, following what he called “our hardest win in two years. “Twenty-one years old out of Illinois State. Nobody knew who I was.
“I actually got knocked out on the play, so I probably didn’t realize the magnitude at the time.
“But the one thing I’ve always done under pressure was rely on the things I’ve always done and that’s what Dre did. I watched him. There was no extraneous stuff.
“He just took his time, stepped up. And hit both.’’
As time goes by, no matter what happens from here on in all gin joints in all the world—starting with Boston and then perhaps Miami–eight year veteran Andre Iguodala and the otherwise young Philadelphia 76ers will always have this moment. The night they shocked the NBA world by becoming the 5th No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1
Here’s looking at you, kids.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known no as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writer’s Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.