HANG TIME PLAYOFF HEADQUARTERS — In a battle of the two best lefty sixth men in basketball, Round 1 went to Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs.
With Oklahoma City’s James Harden, the reigning KIA Sixth Man of the Year, easing his way into Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Ginobili kicked the door down with his scintillating performance.
While Harden struggled to figure out a defensive scheme designed to take away his bread and butter drive to the left, Ginobili was busy doing the things that make him one of the most dangerous playoff forces.
Now that he’s been outplayed by the opposing sixth man, albeit one that’s every bit as talented and even more accomplished, the stakes have been raised for Harden in Game 2. If Ginobili is going to impact the game (and perhaps this series) the way he did in Game 1 (season-high 26 points, 11 in the fourth quarter), the Thunder need Harden to respond in kind.
It was his work that helped secure the Thunder’s first round sweep of the Mavericks. And it was his agitation of the Los Angeles Lakers that proved critical in the Thunder finishing Kobe Bryant and crew off in the conference semifinals. If the conference finals is to live up to all of the pre-series hype, Harden has to play a much more significant role than he did in Game 1. And he’ll certainly have to make his man-to-Manu battle a much more even affair if the Thunder hope to advance.
Harden dismissed the notion that the Spurs had some well-crafted defensive scheme that prevented him from doing his usual. “I just couldn’t make a layup,” he said. “Couldn’t make a layup. Couldn’t make a shot. But it happens. I’ve got to get back to work tomorrow in practice and be ready for Game 2.”
If only it was that simple.
The Spurs have seen their crafty lefty sixth man destroy teams for years. They know better than anyone what teams will do to try to prevent a player like that, Ginobili, from exploiting them. One of the staples of Harden’s game, drawing fouls and shooting free throws, was missing from the Game 1 action because Harden didn’t take any free throws.
“Well, it affected me,” Harden admitted. “Getting to the free-throw line and getting easy points definitely helps me. I just got to be ready. I’ve got to be aggressive and get to the basket to be able to finish in Game 2.”
The Thunder need a better start for Harden in Game 2 as well. He has to match Ginobili’s energy, creativity and force the issue for the Thunder as opposed to reading and trying to react to the collapsing defense designed to protect the rim. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich knows that his team is at a disadvantage trying to match up against the younger and quicker Thunder one on one.
Harden has to remember that as well if he’s going to win Round 2 in his one-on-one battle with Ginobili and change the game for OKC.