Fair or not, Andre Iguodala has always been known as the other A.I.
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In the City of Brotherly Love, Allen Iverson will forever be remembered as A.I., the controversial, whirling dervish of a player who captivated a fan base and an entire city in leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001. Even though they lost in five games to Shaq, Kobe and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers, Iverson is still beloved in these parts.
The other A.I.? Well … let’s just say the love hasn’t always been there.
Iguodala can be standoffish, temperamental and even critical. Not that long ago, he took a swipe at the Philadelphia fans in a Sports Illustrated article.
Still, he can be dynamic, exciting and even clutch.
Iguodala hit a jumper and a huge 3-pointer in the final 90 seconds to lift the Sixers past the Boston Celtics, 92-83, Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center to even the Eastern Conference semifinal series at 2. On a night when Iguodala missed his first six shots and the Sixers missed 30 of 39 in the first half, they managed to rally from 18 points down.
With Iguodala leading the way.
This comes after he drained two free throws with 2.2 seconds left in Game 6 to send the Chicago Bulls home in the first round. This season, Iguodala shot a career-low 61.7 percent from the free throw line. In the fourth quarter, he was a dreadful 23-for-51 — 45.1 percent. That was before Game 6. So much has changed.
Two games, two big-time performances by the other A.I.
"The thing with Andre, first off we’re so happy for him," said Sixers forward Elton Brand. "We never lose confidence in him. Never. We have all the confidence in the world in him. I think these playoffs, he continues to show what kind of player he is, and we’re all thrilled for him and us as a whole."
Iguodala was the ninth overall pick by the Sixers in the 2004 NBA Draft after two seasons at the University of Arizona. He has been a steady player in his eight seasons with the Sixers but has never been considered a star, though he did earn his first career berth in the All-Star Game this season.
Fans have never quite warmed to Iguodala. The callers on the local sports talk shows have constantly wanted him traded. The fans have gasped at his missed shots down the stretch.
This is the first time in eight seasons that Iguodala has advanced past the first round of the playoffs. The Sixers last moved into the second round in 2003.
You can argue that the Sixers wouldn’t be in this position if Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah hadn’t gone down with injuries in the opening round for the Bulls. Yet here they are all tied with the Celtics thanks in large part to Iguodala.
The Sixers’ shots were clanging one by one off the rim Friday, but Philadelphia’s defense was tremendous — anchored, as always, by Iguodala. He finished seventh in the regular season for Defensive Player of the Year. And he earned a standing ovation from the fans during that humongous five-point spurt down the stretch.
"We’re doing a better job of saying, ‘Keep fighting, keep fighting, keep pushing, keep pushing,’ " Iguodala said. "We’ve been down before and got back, and we’ve been down before and given the game away. We’ve been in a lot of different situations and we’ve learned from them. We even talked about our growth throughout these playoffs, and we’re starting to be consistent with growing up."
Iguodala has grown up, too.
It’s one thing to demand the ball in big situations. It’s quite another to come through. Keep in mind that he’s doing it with a sore Achilles and sore knees.
The other A.I., who has been one of the more polarizing players in franchise history, just might be taking that next step. The eighth-seeded Sixers aren’t supposed to still be playing.
"From the minute I got here, Andre has been someone I’ve looked up to," said Sixers rookie forward Lavoy Allen. "He comes to work every day and puts in a full day. He’s very cerebral. He’s a great leader and he has helped me so much with my game. To see him having this kind of success is a very cool thing. I think ‘Dre deserves this as much as anyone here. It’s been great to see."
Don’t expect chants of "MVP!" like the fans used to shout for Iverson. Don’t expect an immediate lovefest between Iguodala and the fans.
If he keeps knocking down shots and winning games for the Sixers, the love will take care of itself.