There is a sense of inevitability-steeped dread to playing James Harden. You know he loves going left and you will plan accordingly. You know he’ll manage to go left anyway, and you will foul him.
But the Spurs pulled off the spectacular in not ceding a single free throw to the flopper savant in Game 1. I don’t mean “flopper,” in the denigrative sense. I am in awe of James Harden’s ability to frame opponents through a sleight of hand and a self-imposed whiplash that points his beard at the accused like a quivering courtroom index finger. To evade Harden’s flop space is to be magnificent, and the Spurs are magnificent space evaders. Popovich’s teams have been among the least-fouling for years and they were especially keyed on the awkward lefty’s mission.
To over-simplify, San Antonio forced Harden to make the drive of least resistance. On the right side of the floor, they enticed him right. On the left side of the floor, Harden’s man guided him left. This latter strategy may have been a bit counterintuitive, because, as previously mentioned, he loves to go left. But this at least meant JH couldn’t draw a foul in the way he loves to: By bumping into a drive-blocking defender.
Suddenly, Harden was unhindered, but he didn’t entirely know how to capitalize. The Spurs knew exactly what to do, sending help over and jumping straight up, palms to the heavens. This is a beautiful, underrated element of Spurs basketball. They make a big show of just how disinterested they are in fouling. Defenders somehow contest shots while making the universal “I surrender!” battlefield gesticulation.
When Harden predictably slashed towards his open strong-side lane, he was easy to time-up, easy to thwart. When Harden attempted to go against the grain on the left side of the court, his shaky right hand was an issue. On the right side of the court, he was shaded so heavily that leftward drives weren’t a consideration.
It’s impossible to prevent James Harden from beating his man left when he has the rock on the court’s left side. Perhaps Popovich knew that he couldn’t prevent this anymore than the Drug War could prevent drug use. So instead of fighting the inexorable, the Spurs dealt with the predictable–like one of those savvy Nordic nations. In doing so, San Antonio made their success inevitable.