Thunder vs. Spurs: James Harden Is Vital to an Oklahoma City Upset
As the Western Conference finals begin, both the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder have begun sizing up their respective rosters, looking for the matchup or game breaker that could swing such an hotly contested and balanced matchup.
For the Thunder, that series-changing potential lies in their commonly called-upon x-factor: the majestically-bearded James Harden.
A revelation during the 2012 season who has only reached new heights in the escalated atmosphere of the playoffs, Harden's fantastic play down the stretch has added a new dimension to OKC, giving the Thunder a Big Three to compete with the best triplets the league has to offer.
With OKC facing its stiffest and most versatile matchup yet, Harden will once again be instrumental in the success of the youthful squad from Oklahoma City.
The reasons for Harden's importance are both obvious and understated. Harden's status as the best sixth man in the league is justified—the bearded two-guard provides an astonishingly productive and efficient performance in the role, scoring 18 points per game while averaging only roughly 10 shots per outing. Per 36 minutes, Harden manages the impressive stat line 19.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
That's not bad considering he plays with two very scoring-competent All-Stars—Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
In addition, Harden's dangerous abilities as a scoring threat releases Durant and Westbrook from obligatory shot attempts, allowing them to spread the court and look for high-percentage attempts. This increases the efficiency of the offense as a whole. When Harden is playing well, he raises the entire level of play for the Thunder. When he's not—as was seen last night in their 101-98 loss in which Harden went 7-17—OKC is not nearly as explosive or dangerous.
Harden also provides a counterpoint to the Spurs' longtime bench spark Manu Ginobili, who torched the Thunder for 26 points in the sixth man role in their win on Sunday. Without Harden, OKC is unlikely to be able to match Ginobili's ability to swing games, especially with Durant and Westbrook unable to provide such a big scoring load. If the Thunder hope to have a chance at taking down the aging but wily Spurs, they need Harden's ability to match Ginobili's explosiveness off the bench.
With such an intriguing and dynamic matchup between the two teams, the Thunder and Spurs will look to Ginobili and Harden—similar players at two different points in their careers—to propel them into the NBA finals. If the Thunder hope to prevail, Harden will have to once again discover his efficiently-played brand of playoff magic and become the third hinge in the developing Big Three in Oklahoma City.
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