Of all the comparisons the Thunder has drawn to the Spurs, the one that might best fit is one that hasn't gotten much attention.
It's James Harden and Manu Ginobili, the left-handed shooting guards for both teams who will face off Friday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“As players, yes, there are some similarities,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “They both are talented players. They both play a winning style of basketball and they seem to make big plays.”
Harden, the Thunder's sixth man who is now in his third season, is averaging 17.1 points on 48.5 percent shooting and 4.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.0 steals.
Ginobili, in his third season with the Spurs, is averaging 16 points on 47.1 percent shooting and 4.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals.
“The thing I love about James is his energy off the bench ... that mirrors Manu in '05 and '07 when he was coming off the bench for us, and he was phenomenal,” said Sean Elliot, who won a title with San Antonio in 1999 and now serves as the team's color commentator.
“And with Harden, I don't know where he all of a sudden became a playmaker. I think it was last year during the playoffs. I watched him all of last year and the year before that and I didn't see any shades of what I'm seeing now. The last game we played against him in Oklahoma City, I told my crew, ‘I've never seen this guy play like this, where he's making plays, or he's running the screen and roll, or he's turning the corner, or he's hiding behind that screen and shooting.'”
It's that savvy that makes the two so similar.
“He's got a lot of savvy,” Elliott said of Harden. “He's got a lot of playmaking abilities, and that's something I hadn't seen in his game in the first two years.”
Both also have shown an incredible ability to make something out of nothing.
“They just have a knack for getting inside the defense,” said Brooks. “You think you have them stopped and there's a slight window or opening and they seem to get through it and get to the rim or get fouled. They're both clever players.”
With Harden, his style has been described as an “old man's game.”
“When they talk about an old man's game, that's fundamental basketball,” said Elliott. “But it's also having savvy. You have a lot of young players today that are super athletic and that's what they rely on. They don't necessarily rely on their instincts or their savvy.”'
Ginobili, meanwhile, has been labeled more unorthodox.
“Obviously, they have very natural talent,” Brooks said. “But they work on it every day. You can tell. The way they play, the way they attack the rim, you don't just wake up one morning and have that. It's a skill that has been worked on.”
Ginobili, who has battled injuries this season, has been a problem for the Thunder. Like Harden, Brooks said, Ginobili's versatility causes him to be a primary focus on the scouting report.
“We've tried many different tactics against Manu, and he somehow gets in there and makes big shots,” Brooks said. “And they're both good 3-point shooters, so that really helps because you can't play one way because they can shoot and put it on the floor.”
The most glaring difference between Harden and Ginobili at this point is success. Ginobili, now 34, is a three-time champion, two-time NBA All-Star, two-time All-NBA Third Team selection and a Sixth Man of the Year winner. Before joining the NBA at 25, Ginobili was an accomplished player overseas, winning an Italian League Championship twice, the 2001 FIBA Americas Championship and a Euroleague championship in 2001. Ginobili has since won an Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2004.
“It remains to be seen if James can be the player that Manu is,” Elliott said. “I mean, Manu has won gold medals and NBA championships and he's got an incredible will to win. I haven't watched James enough to say that he has that. I haven't seen him enough in big situations to say that he has that yet.”