Iguodala's defense rock steady as ever

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Iguodala's defense rock steady as ever

As far as topics that have been addressed ad naseum this season, the defensive prowess of Andre Iguodala has been well chronicled.

But facts are facts there are very few basketball players on the planet who play defense as well as Iguodala and this alone just might earn him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team this summer for the London games. Sure, defense isnt glamorous and a lot of the nuance of it is lost on the casual fans of the game, yet when general managers and executives pick their teams, guys like Iguodala always seem to make the cut.

Again, facts are facts: when you were a kid growing up playing basketball, the measure of how well you played was largely attributed to your defense. Oh sure, friends and the fans talked about points and shooting, but the coaches who gave out the playing time all looked at the defense.

Nevertheless, in a season where his defense has stood out more so than any other during his career, Iguodala added another gem to the collection on Saturday night during the 95-90 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at the Wells Fargo Center (see game recap). Though the box score has a goose egg under the steals category next to his name, and All-Star Joe Johnson got 15 points though just two in the last quarter it hardly tells the full story.

For instance, during a sequence in the third quarter Iguodala deflected a pass to halt an easy basket and then broke up a 3-on-1 break by stripping the ball from point guard George Teague. He didnt get a steal, a rebound or a blocked shot during that series of plays, but the Sixers stopped the Hawks from extending the lead and in turn Iguodala fired up his teammates.

Meanwhile, Iguodalas reputation as the guy who puts the clamps on the oppositions leading scorer was enhanced against Johnson, who not only scored just two points in the fourth quarter, but also did not even get off a shot in the final 10 minutes of the game. Of Johnsons 15 points, nine of them came while Iguodala was on the bench and two others came when he banked in a contested, tip-your-cap 20-footer.

Johnson, of course, is just the latest All-Star victim to the Venus flytrap-like defense from Iguodala. Against the Knicks at the Garden on March 11, Carmelo Anthony shot 5 for 13 for 22 points against the Sixers, but was 0 for 6 after the first quarter. Then there was the game on Feb. 6 where Kobe Bryant scored 24 points in the first half, including 20 in the first 17 minutes of the game. But during the second half Bryant shot just 2 for 14, including 1 for 10 in the final quarter after coach Doug Collins switched defenses to put Iguodala on the three-time scoring champ.

He plays amazing defense against the top scorers every night, veteran Elton Brand said. We give him help, but hes on his own most of the time.

The list of players Iguodala has held in check during the season reads like a veritable whos who of NBA stars, though Saturdays effort against Johnson may have been the most impressive.

More impressive than blanketing Carmelo or Kobe? Well, considering that Iguodala missed a pair of games this week with chondromalacia in his knee, yes. Saturdays game was one of those where the Sixers season could have spiraled into the abyss had they not pulled through with a win, so when it came down to crunch time, Iguodala made sure the All-Star didnt score.

It was an impressive effort.

How about it, Andre?

It was OK. Ive just been playing against guys like that for eight years and theyre going to have some good nights, he said. I just understand the game and understand the flow and what theyre going to do and their tendencies. Just being a student of the game helps me when my body isnt at full strength. I can think my way through a game without breaking a sweat, so that helps sometimes, too.

When the Hawks took a six-point lead with 11:07 remaining in the fourth quarter on Johnsons 23-footer, Collins started to get worried. Johnson, he said, has a knack for making big shots in the final quarter and the stats bear that out, too. In fact, in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter, Johnson was shooting 22 for 45 going into Saturdays game and had made 12 of 21 three-pointers.

I was worried because Joe Johnson is one of the best guys late in games and I was just worried about him making a big shot, Collins said.

However, its difficult to be a clutch shooter when the defender doesnt allow a shot to be taken.

Its tough to place a metric on defense, though. Sure, there is the defensive rating, which measures the points scored against a teamplayer per 100 possessions and there is also defensive win shares, which is a variation on the rating. Iguodala is third in the NBA in defensive win shares behind Dwight Howard and Josh Smith and fifth in defensive rating behind Howard, Brand, Kevin Garnett and Smith, but there is only so much the numbers can tell.

Instead, its just easier to ask the 13-year NBA veteran Brand if hes ever played alongside a player who can play defense like Iguodala.

Elton?

Not like that. Not that tenacious, Brand said. I played with Ron Artest in AAU and hed maul somebody if they scored on him, but other than that I havent seen anyone play defense like Iguodala.

E-mail John R. Finger at jfinger@comcastsportsnet.com

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Report: Sixers in California for NBA draft workouts

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Report: Sixers in California for NBA draft workouts

As the Western Conference Finals are taking place in Oakland, the Sixers are looking for new talent of their own in California.

This week, members of the Sixers' front office are attending pre-draft workouts organized through multiple agencies, including BDA Sports Management, CAA Sports, Landmark Sports Agency, Octagon and Wasserman Media Group.

While the Sixers hold the No. 1 pick, these workouts are opportunities for them to evaluate players that could be fits for their 24th and 26th selections.

On Thursday, the list of workout participants included projected first-rounders Deyonta Davis (Michigan State) and Cheik Diallo (Kansas), according to the Philadelphia Inquirer

The scouting process takes NBA teams coast to coast. Earlier this week, the Sixers reportedly attended a private workout with Excel Sports Management in New York City, in which Brandon Ingram and Jamal Murray participated.

The Sixers have held two workouts at their own practice facility, bringing in a total of 12 prospects thus far.

As the draft nears, 57 early-entry candidates withdrew their names from the 2016 draft.

NBA Playoffs: Stephen Curry, Warriors fight off elimination

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NBA Playoffs: Stephen Curry, Warriors fight off elimination

BOX SCORE

OAKLAND, Calif. -- "We ain't going home! We're not going home!" Stephen Curry screamed at the top of his lungs.

No, his Golden State Warriors are going back to Oklahoma City, after keeping their title reign and the winningest season in NBA history alive for at least one more game.

Curry scored 31 points, raising his arms in the early moments to fire up Golden State's raucous crowd, and the defending champions staved off elimination with a 120-111 victory over the Thunder on Thursday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.

"We just did what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to win at home," Curry said. "We know what we still have to do going forward. ... We knew if we didn't win we were going home. There's no other motivation you need."

For all the speculation about the current state of Curry's beat-up body -- that troublesome ankle, sore knee or tender elbow -- he did it all.

"I thought he looked like 91 percent," coach Steve Kerr cracked. "He came out and played a really good game. That's all I can tell you. He's going to compete every night. He had an excellent night and helped us get it done."

Led by Curry, the Warriors looked like their old winning selves again.

The MVP made a snazzy layup late and dished out six assists, while Klay Thompson added 27 points as Golden State sent the best the best-of-seven series back to Oklahoma City for Game 6 on Saturday night. The Warriors trail 3-2 and are trying to become just the 10th team to rally from a 3-1 deficit.

"None of us want to go home," Thompson said. "We're having too much fun out there."

Kevin Durant scored 40 points and Russell Westbrook added 31 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and five steals for the Thunder, trying for the fifth NBA Finals appearance in franchise history and first championship since moving from Seattle.

The record-setting, 73-win Warriors, coming off their first back-to-back defeats all season, had been blown out in two losses at Oklahoma City by a combined 52 points.

"We have to take that game and travel," Curry said of keeping momentum.

Durant's 3-pointer with 4:34 left got the Thunder within 103-98, then Curry answered with a three-point play.

Curry scored seven points in a 58-second stretch of the second quarter and hit more big shots late, but the Thunder didn't go away easily.

"I liked our will, I liked our fight," Kerr said. "We were embarrassed in OKC the last couple games."

Trailing 58-50 at halftime, Oklahoma City came out of the break with a 9-2 run. Westbrook's 3-pointer with 6:06 left in the third put Oklahoma City ahead 68-67 for its first lead of the night. But Golden State led 81-77 going into the fourth and began the final period with an 8-0 burst.

"We didn't shoot a particularly good percentage when we got into the lane and got into the deep paint," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "We had our opportunities."

Curry shot 9 for 20 and also had five steals, while Thompson had his 11th 20-point game for the second straight postseason despite shooting 2 for 9 from 3-point range. After struggling the past two games, Draymond Green had 11 points and 13 rebounds a day after receiving some encouraging words from Kobe Bryant on the phone.

"We really relied on the entire team tonight, which is when we're at our best," Curry said.

Kerr figured his Warriors might have an edge against the percentages of teams having trailed 3-1 because they're the defending champs and were playing at home, where they have been nearly unbeatable.

He wasn't surprised to see this team respond so well.

"We played with great desperation," Kerr said. "I knew how we would play. This is a championship team."

Kerr called for center Andrew Bogut to do more and the 7-footer delivered with a playoff career-high 15 points and 14 rebounds for his second double-double this postseason and seventh of his career.

Marreese Speights had a pair of three-point plays on follow shots and a 3 in the second quarter to give Golden State a nice lift off the bench. He had nine points in four minutes during that stretch and 14 points overall for his fifth double-digit scoring game this postseason.

"Their bench came in and made shots, made plays for them," Durant said. "We know we're going home. We can't relax."

Golden State made 31 of 34 free throws.

With his 1,248th career postseason point in the third, Curry passed Wilt Chamberlain (1,246) for second place on the franchise's playoff scoring list.

"That's who he is, that's what he's done, and that's what's made him a very good player," Donovan said.

Tip-ins
Thunder: The franchise lost in the finals in 1977-78, 1995-96 to Kerr and the Chicago Bulls and in `12. ... Steven Adams sat down with his second foul at the 9:34 mark of the first quarter. The Thunder had seven fouls to Golden State's one after the first. ... Oklahoma City took Game 1 at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors have lost only three times all season. ... The Thunder started the game 3 for 14.

Warriors: Green picked up his fifth technical of the postseason. He also has at least one steal in 16 straight playoff games. ... Golden State missed six of its first seven 3s. ... The Warriors supported Turner Sports sideline reporter Craig Sager with "Sager Strong" T-shirts for sale to support awareness and research for leukemia and lymphoma, both blood cancers.