- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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It was the trendy pre-series link, the two sixth man left-handers who can shoot the 3-pointer, drive to the hoop with their Euro-step and pester opponents defensively. As much as I'd love to celebrate the moment for finally breaking through the racial barrier to find the similarities between an Argentine and an African-American from California, it all must come to a halt if Harden can't come closer to matching Ginobili's output and impact.
Ginobili scored 26 points to lead the Spurs to victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. He needed only 14 field-goal attempts to get them.
For Harden, the slight inconvenience of his poor shooting since the start of the second round has turned into a serious issue. He has made only 37 percent of his shots the past six games, including a 7-for-17 night Sunday. He had 19 points, which makes his output seem closer to Ginobili than it really was.
Ginobili's buckets were more timely. It was the difference between scoring seven points in 52 seconds to give the Spurs a six-point lead and momentum at the end of the first quarter, as Ginobili did, versus making a meaningless 3-pointer at the final buzzer that served only to make the final score a little closer, 101-98, as Harden did.
Ginobili had moments when he took the game over. Harden had two charging fouls while the Thunder were in the midst of a four-minute scoring drought in the fourth quarter, as a nine-point lead and a golden opportunity to steal a road game and puncture the Spurs' aura of invincibility slipped away.
It's not that the Thunder's loss hangs entirely on Harden. He can't be blamed for the Thunder's lack of ball movement or defensive coverage in the fourth quarter. It's not Harden's fault that Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha could barely top the number of field goals made by Tiago Splitter.
But the playoffs are the province of the stars, and Harden is a star for Oklahoma City. People like to think of the Thunder as the polar opposites as the Miami, but the truth is they work on a similar fundamental premise: They'll both win if they have the two best players on the court. Russell Westbrook struggled, missing 14 shots and matching his turnover total for the entire Lakers series (four).
Durant managed to score 27 points, in addition to 10 rebounds, but Westbrook left a void that Ginobili filled and Harden didn't.
"I couldn't make a layup," Harden said. "I couldn't make a shot."
Even worse, he couldn't make a free throw because he didn't attempt any.
"It affected me," Harden said. "I live at the line. Getting to the free-throw line and getting easy points, it definitely helps me. I've just got to be ready. Got to be more aggressive at getting to the basket and being able to finish in Game 2."
Hmm, getting to the basket might not be an option. The Spurs did a tremendous job of collapsing their defense around the rim, the main reason all of the Thunder players struggled to score inside. The Spurs enjoyed a 50-26 advantage in points in the paint, as the Thunder missed 20 of their 33 shots in the lane.
"We can't guard them one-on-one, there's no way, so team defense is even more important than it was during the regular season," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
This is where the Thunder are really missing Eric Maynor, who was lost to a season-ending knee injury in January. By the end of last season, the backcourt of Maynor and Harden was part of the Thunder's best five-man unit in terms of points per possession. This year, with no Maynor, Harden is controlling the second unit's offense more himself.
There's no one who excels at setting up Harden. Westbrook is still mastering the art of getting the ball to Durant, who can allow himself to get lost in the shuffle at times. Durant's passes tend to go into the hands of Ibaka or Perkins. Backup Derek Fisher has never been a classic point guard, and even Sunday's 13-point performance -- the equivalent of found money for the Thunder -- was more notable for his shooting.
So Harden's in a tough position, being asked to produce like a starter when coming off the bench, having to find ways to score against a restrictive defense.
"I believe in him, our team believes in him," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He's an aggressive player. He has to continue to attack, get to the rim and hopefully get to the foul line."
Hope is a dangerous concept in the NBA this time of year. There's much more comfort to be found in probabilities and trends. The good news for the Thunder is that Harden shot 59 percent against the Spurs in the three regular-season games and got to the free-throw line seven times per game.
The bad news is the Spurs didn't have Ginobili in those games. And right now San Antonio has the O.G. Ginobili, and the Thunder have a duplicate made by a copy machine that's low on toner.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann