There are a score of intriguing match-ups in the San Antonio-Oklahoma City Western Conference Final series between two teams that have a combined 16-1 record in these playoffs.
Steady, underrated Tony Parker will match up with the explosive, emerging Russell Westbrook, the ageless Tim Duncan will match up with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, and rookie forward Kawhi Leonard will try to contain the league’s leading scorer Kevin Durant.
The most important match-up may be outside of the starting five, as sixth men James Harden and Manu Ginobili play a similar role on their respective teams.
By coming off the bench, these players control the pace of the game and give their second units a major boost. Though they could be starting on most teams in the league, buying into their role as sixth men has helped the Spurs and Thunder emerge as two of the best teams in the NBA.
Ginobili, 34, has been in the League a little longer, drafted 57th overall in 1999 and entering the NBA in 2003/04. He has gone on to average 15.2 points, 4 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals, helping the Spurs win three championships in ten seasons.
James Harden was the third overall pick in 2009 and is averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.0 steals in this, his third season in the League. For his efforts, he was awarded the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award this season.
Ginobili won the award in 2008 and has been one of the League’s premier sixth men for the greater part of a decade. His game is eerily similar to James Harden’s, posting similar numbers over their first three seasons.
Harden and Ginobili play under control, the tempo of the game adjusting to whatever pace they want to run it at. However their flamboyant play often makes them look as if they’re playing on the edge, when they are actually playing efficient basketball. Harden shot 49% for the season and Ginobili shot a career-high 53% this year, with low turnover rates.
Both sixth men are also lefties, which contributes to their unorthodox looking style. Each is also an active, and adept defender.
Harden and Ginobili are penetrating wing players that can score, or draw the defense towards them to find teammates in the perfect position with crisp passes. Both are also proficient at shooting from behind the three-point line which helps to stretch the defense and open up the floor for their teammates.
Both players exemplify the sacrifice that good players on good teams make to win championships. Ginobili has started at times during his career, but maintained his sixth-man role on the consistent Spurs team. Harden may prove to be too good to keep coming off the bench if he keeps improving, and if another team were to offer him a starting spot and lucrative contract, would he take it? Or would he continue to sacrifice for the good of the team as Ginobili has during his career?
All the forecasting aside, the two will clash head-to-head in the Western Finals displaying leadership on the team and within the second unit, clutch moments at the ends of games, solid team play and a commitment to the ultimate goal: an NBA championship.