James Harden has an extraordinary basketball IQ. He’s athletic and has a perfect physical profile for a modern guard, but what really sets Harden apart as a scorer and creator is his mind. He sees angles most other players don’t. He finds the most efficient paths to where he wants to go. He then tortures defenders with a full repertoire of tricks to get open looks and draw fouls.
Ginobili had good size and agility (if not the full-bore speed or Harden’s leaping ability). He had exceptional handles and passing skills to the point that he was effectively the Spurs’ No. 2 point guard for a decade. Ginobili’s body control is legend. He popularized the Eurostep in the NBA and has a long list of impossible lay-ups to his name. At his peak, he was a top-drawer foul drawer in his own right.
Harden took the Ginobili blueprint and ramped it up to eleven. At the core for these players (and many others) is basketball IQ. Their minds get their bodies in places to make magic happen.
Harden’s set-up on the deciding shot of Game 5 was textbook. Manu crowded Harden at 28 feet on the left wing. Harden pump-faked to test Ginobili’s reaction. Manu didn’t foul, and stuck close to the Rocket.
Harden knew he could drive right, toward the middle and still pull up behind the line. If the Spurs helped off of Ryan Anderson or Eric Gordon, Harden might have had just enough time to get a pass off. (It would have been reeeeeeally tight, though.)
No one helped hard, and Harden’s quick step easily got by Ginobili. But that was Manu’s plan. He knew Harden would pull up (Houston was down three) and the Spurs stayed home on the other shooters. Ginobili knew exactly where Harden would be!
This is the result.
Manu let Harden pass him so he could get the clean block from behind without having to worry about elevating with Harden, and without having to worry about fouling the foul magnet Harden. He avoided getting tangled up in Harden’s inevitable leg kick-out. He avoided catching Harden on the forearm. He read Harden like a book, and set that book on fire.
It’s just an incredibly smart, potentially season-saving play from one of the greats. And 95 percent of it was Manu’s basketball IQ. This is the Spurs’ way.
To be sure, San Antonio makes mistakes. It’s a franchise employing humans, and humans are fallible. There are Luis Scola trades and the occasional Jackie Butler. There are plays like the last possession in regulation on Tuesday, where the Spurs didn’t get a shot off and made Gregg Popovich apoplectic. There is Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.
But in the aggregate, the Spurs are just so damn smart. It’s a huge part of who they are both on the court and off.
Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, David Robinson: these are some of the smartest players of their generations. Popovich, R.C. Buford, and their front office staff have pulled so many rabbits out of the hat you start to wonder if the hat is just a portal to a bunny farm.
Consider Jonathon Simmons, who the Spurs scouted in the minor leagues, brought in and developed. He was a critical defensive backstop on Tuesday once Kawhi went down with injury.
Per reports, Harden went 0-for-1 with five turnovers in six possessions matched up against Simmons. This was a player any team in the league could have signed two years ago. The Spurs did it, and the Spurs reap the benefits. They’ve since done the same with Dewayne Dedmon, who isn’t playing now but was a huge factor in the regular season. They’ll do it again, too. This is the Spurs’ way.
For Harden, Tuesday night was an education. He’s a student of the game. You know he’s spending hours in the lab before Game 6 working on responses to Simmons’ defense and Ginobili’s block. He’ll come back with a new weapon or two. This is what the NBA’s greatest players do: they study, they learn, they fight back.
Manu has for 15 long seasons. He’s not always on the winning side — we mentioned the 2013 NBA Finals, right? — but the effort to learn new ways to torture opponents is never wasted. Let’s see how Harden responds.