Harden vs. Leonard: Desire vs. Experience
James Harden has it all, consistency, grit and offensive prowess but one thing he doesn’t have is an NBA Championship ring. The Beard & Co are facing down the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs, a team that, among many attributes has stand-out Kawhi Leonard who has what Harden lacks, a ring. The matchup between these two players was hyped the moment the second-round meeting was confirmed in the 2017 NBA Playoffs yet here are a few things to remember when comparing these two franchise players. Harden has more professional experience, being active in the league for seven series to Leonard’s five. Harden out-paces Leonard in points, rebounds and assists per game for the regular season. What Harden doesn’t have is a long-standing system.
Leonard joined a well-oiled machine when he joined the San Antonio Spurs back in 2011. Head Coach Gregg Popovich is a veteran sideline conductor whose experience not only taking teams to the post season but winning championships has become a tradition in the Alamo City while James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets in 2012 after spending his first three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Harden hasn’t been guided by consistent veteran head coaches, instead he’s been the key piece for teams marching towards a championship, those teams have just come up short.
The Rockets may have stolen one on the road in Game 1 against the Spurs, but San Antonio’s success in the postseason is built on consistency, they know the playoffs are a marathon not a sprint and apparently so does James Harden. “Game 1 is good for us,” Harden said after blowing out San Antonio 126-99 on the road, “but we’ve got to get greedy.”
The 27-year-old is right, the Rockets can’t afford to celebrate their first win against this team too long; the playoffs are a best of seven series so one blowout win can quickly turn into a tied series if Houston takes its foot off the pedal. While the Spurs boast veteran players in their lineup with more mileage on their legs, it’s the depth of Popovich’s squad that will wear Houston down in Game 2. While the Spurs sputtered in their opening game of the series, any Rockets fan would be foolish to hope that will continue; everyone has an off night and the Rockets were able to capitalize on San Antonio’s befuddlement but don’t expect them to give another game away without a toe-to-toe battle on the hardwood. With two great options at the forward, center, shooting forward and point guard positions, the Spurs are poised to keep fresh legs on the floor tonight.
Can the Rockets go up 2-0?
The only way the Rockets can go up 2-0 in this series is if they keep Leonard off Harden. Look, James Harden’s biggest asset isn’t his facial hair, which as amazing as it is to look at isn’t the reason he’s so difficult to guard, it’s his speed that has enabled the Los Angeles native to dance on by, taking a quick first step to get around opponents in the paint and distributing the basketball like a traffic officer directs rush hour traffic. For Houston, it’s important to play off pick and rolls to get LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, David Lee or Dewayne Dedmon onto Harden, players who while imposing defensive forces, lack the agility and quickness to stay in front of the 6’5 offensive tap dancer. Leonard is too quick and forces Harden to either toss up Hail Mary’s or pass the ball.
I don’t expect another blowout in Game 2 but what I do expect is for San Antonio to come out with a renewed commitment to offensive efficiency, hardened defense that includes Leonard clinging to Harden and a chip on their shoulder after getting punched in the chin at home, don’t underestimate pride, a bruised ego can take you far. It will be a good matchup but Houston fans better hold onto their seats for this one, it wouldn’t be a far and away shooting clinic.