In NBA Playoffs, Manu Ginobili and James Harden both belie meaningless regular-season numbers
I’ve been hearing all spring about the “new James Harden” we were about to see flourish in the NBA Playoffs. I’m still waiting for this guy to show up. The one I saw last night looks suspiciously like the “old James Harden.”
If you’re anything like me, you don’t watch the NBA until the postseason begins in April. Maybe you don’t watch even then, but bear with me. The point is, I saw the numbers Harden has been putting up all regular season but not the performances. The other point is, they were worthless because the regular season is virtually worthless in the NBA. None of the great players who decide championships start playing hard until then. And their A games are exponentially better than their C games.
So, those who obsessed purely on Harden’s numbers from a metrics-obsessed organization were getting a skewed picture of his ultimate worth. That he was now passing more and racking up more assists (11.2 in 2016-17 compared with 5.7 overall in his career) left me skeptical. These numbers were against the three-quarter speed of October-March defenses, 48 percent of which were teams not even making the playoffs.
April begins a different time and space. The competitors emerge. The pretenders submerge.
I’m not saying James Harden is “a loser.” Nor am I saying that about other prolific players I’ve disparaged in this space, including Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin. Make as much money as they are and it’s not a label with which I’d tag you.
But I am saying this: When the flowers bloom and leaves sprout, you can see the look in winners’ eyes. Harden still doesn’t have that look.
And Manu Ginobili, laughing in the face of Father Time, still does.
You can just see the competitive fire in the Argentinian, that he’s ready to do whatever it takes to help his team win. If that means a deft and perceptive pass at a key moment, if it means a move no one expects him to make or a shot the metrics geeks would not recommend, so be it.
Sometimes, that fire has made him take risks that have helped lose games. Sometimes, he still tries to do things a man who’s about to turn 40 in July should no longer try.
But more times than not, it’s meant an edge to the San Antonio Spurs that’s contributed to four of those five championships in the last two decades. He was a part of all but the first one.
I thought Ginobili should have retired at the end of the 2013 season when the Spurs blew the lead to the Heat and lost in seven games. He tried to do too much. He wasn’t yet accounting for the loss of quickness and spring his age was beginning to siphon. And I thought it was about to render him a net liability.
Houston’s James Harden (13) defends as San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili (20) handles ball in second half last night in Game 5 of their NBA Playoffs Western Conference semifinal series.AP/Eric Gay
You could make that argument still based on metrics. Ginobili’s 2016-17 regular-season numbers did not look good. He hit only .390 FG% compared with .447 during his entire career and .526 just five years ago (the 2011-12 season). It was the lowest such figure of his 15-season NBA career.
And his numbers in this year’s playoffs were even worse. Though his 3P% has been tracking up late in his career (.392 this season compared with a .370 career average), he’s shooting .192 3P% in 11 playoff games this spring.
When a man gets this old and even his spot-up trey begins to betray him, it’s time to hang it up, right?
Well, all I can say is, for one game last night when it really mattered, there was that look in Ginobili’s eye. In the small minutes of the fourth quarter when the Spurs really needed it in Game 5 of a 2-2 quarterfinal series, with aging Tony Parker lost for the year and Kawhi Leonard sitting because of a foot sprain, Ginobili incredibly started making winning plays.
Earlier in the game, he’d threaded through the lane for a driving dunk – what? – and now here he was hitting a three from the top, finding Danny Green with a perfect laser pass for another three, driving for a curling kiss off glass and finally stuffing from behind Harden’s potential tying 3-point attempt on the game’s final play.
And Harden? He just looked lost. Again, when an important game was on the line, all his gaudy numbers dissolved away and we were left with the vacant countenance of a man with a trademark look but no winner’s glint. Always Mr. Cool in demeanor and able to hit one shot after another during lesser moments off the most lethal one-on-one moves in the game, Harden kept kicking the ball away or missing shots in the fourth quarter of this one.
Why? I don’t know. Why does the same thing happen so often to Westbrook and Anthony and all the others with tremendous talent who’ve never won anything in the NBA?
Why, on the other hand, have Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving and Ray Allen made careers out of making the winning plays when their teams needed them? And before you credit LeBron James with making them all champions, go back and look at the tapes of their end-game careers and see how many times they made LeBron a 3-time champion. You could argue one each for all three.
Maybe Harden will see that day. But I doubt it. Either you have the look or you don’t.
And his rationalizers will complain that he’s lost Nene Hilario to a season-ending thigh injury and it crippled the Rockets. But that doesn’t explain his other years, particularly when he and Westbrook and Kevin Durant all played together for the Thunder and they still couldn’t find a way to a ring.
The Spurs aren’t winning any ring this year. Ginobili is the apparent last man standing from the championship trio. Tim Duncan is done and Parker may be, too. Leonard is hobbling and San Antonio struggles to score so often. They will expend everything they have just to close out this series and may not yet.
But it was still good to see that champion put on his winner’s pants one final time. You can’t fake the look.
DAVID JONES: firstname.lastname@example.org