Whenever I walk into the visitor’s locker room at the AT&T Center, home court of the San Antonio Spurs, two of the most common objects I see are a white marker board and a T.V. screen with Spurs footage being played continuously.
As the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder wait patiently to face each other on Sunday, there’s probably one Thunder player taking notes of the Spurs’ sweep of the Los Angeles Clippers. That player is most likely James Harden, and the footage he’s watching is probably that of Eric Bledsoe.
Using Bledsoe as a guide to find a way to attack the Spurs, Harden will be preparing himself well. Bledsoe had a 17-point game-one (8/10 FG) and a 23-point game-four (10/16 FG) against the Spurs. Bledsoe was quick, strong, and explosive at either getting to the rim or hitting the mid-range jumper with consistency. Harden is like Bledsoe on an even higher level. He’s quick, strong, taller, can drive and shoot, and Harden is a lefty which makes him a mirror version of Manu Ginobili in a way.
Bledsoe really exploited the Spurs’ lack of perimeter defense in their second unit, because Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Tony Parker were all busy defending Chris Paul, Randy Foye, and Caron Butler. Bledsoe really took advantage of Ginobili and especially Gary Neal. He was too quick for Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich to put Stephen Jackson on him, and the only time Bledsoe was limited was when either Green or Leonard were put to defend him on certain possessions.
Switch back to Harden, he could be a huge problem for the Spurs on defense, and could possibly be a major x-factor in this series. During the regular season, Harden averaged 19.3 points, made 6.3 of 10.7 field goals (59%), shot 42% from three-point range, and attempted 6.7 free throw attempts on average in three games against the Spurs. Now I know most say, “well you can’t use a regular season sample because Manu didn’t play and Stephen Jackson, Patty Mills, and Boris Diaw weren’t added to the team yet.” True, but Gary Neal was there for most of those matches. Harden had his way with the Spurs in the small sample of games he played against them, and if he is watching how Bledsoe was able to score on the second unit, then he knows he’s in for a big series.
The best way to solve the problem of limiting Harden is to throw Green on him. From the footage I’ve seen, Green was very effective on him because he stays close to his defender throughout the game, rarely moving away from him. For Green to consistently guard Harden, Parker will have to keep pace with Russell Westbrook. If Parker can’t contain Westbrook, then the Spurs will have to resort to Green to play defense on him, which opens up the chance for Harden to score on whoever is guarding him.
Another way the Spurs can guard Harden is to put Leonard on him, while Green defends Westbrook, and Jackson defend Durant. Still, when Harden initially goes into the game against Ginobili or Neal, he’s going to have his opportunities to score.
With all this positive talk about Harden, there are also some advantages the Spurs can exploit because Harden is on the floor. For one, if Ginobili is able to get his game going offensively, he’ll make Harden have to work on defense, which in turn can take away Harden’s aggressiveness on offense. Speaking of Harden’s defense, he’s actually not that great of a defender from the samples of footage I’ve seen. He doesn’t give his full effort in trying to get around screens, he’s late on rotations when teams are swinging the ball around, and his closing-out ability when a player is preparing to shoot is also suspect.
This bodes really well for the Spurs because Ginobili, Green, and Neal are all dead-eye shooters from the outside, and Ginobili and Neal work really well in the pick-and-roll in either driving, shooting the open jumper, or finding the rolling big man.
I do expect for Harden to have a big series offensively, but like Bledsoe, one player still can’t do it all. Right now the Thunder mainly rely on Durant (26.7 points), Westbrook (24.1 points), and Harden (17 points) to carry them to a victory each and every night. They all might score, but like Paul, Griffin, and Bledsoe, the Thunder still lack the volume of supporting cast the Spurs have.
So as good as Bledsoe was, and as good as Harden will be, they’ll both be facing the same fate in the end in my opinion, a losing series to the most complete team in basketball right now, the Spurs.