LaMarcus Aldridge is going to occupy a safe pocket, during the Western Conference finals. The San Antonio Spurs big man stands a ready-made answer for why things are going truly right, or really, really wrong; as just about most if not all talented, possibly offensive-first bigs have worked at in one point or another during their careers. This guy’s been dealing with the drag of being a big man since before the first pro checks even cleared.
Aldridge’s bookends in San Antonio’s semifinals win over Houston were too obvious to ignore, not even for those that wanted to. The 11-year pro, forever nagged with questions about his doggedness in the pen, struggled miserably during San Antonio’s blowout loss in Game 1 before driving the (by that time, Kawhi Leonard-less) Spurs to the Western finals in Game 6 with a 34-point, 12-rebound performance in what was easily the game of his career.
That the second-biggest game of Aldridge’s 2016-17 season came against the Golden State Warriors, a team constructed well ahead of the Houston Rockets in every conceivable function of the word, in an opening-night performance that put the 67-win Warriors down 0-1 to start their campaign. Aldridge dominated that game alongside Leonard, pushing for 26 points and 14 rebounds in a contest that, however briefly, had us considering the Spurs as Golden State’s equals in the West.
We don’t think that any more, less a function of Golden State’s traipse through the rest of the regular season and playoffs (a 75-14 mark in the months since will do that) and with more to do with the fact that the Spurs and Warriors didn’t give us a whole hell of a lot during the regular season. Aldridge’s Oct. 25th against GSW feels so long ago that one might be compelled to check if David Lee started in that contest. For Golden State, or San Antonio.
It’s less certain that Aldridge acts as a tipping point in the Western finals, mostly because teams as great as the Warriors aren’t typically felled by X-Factors. It takes star power, countless possessions gobbled up by players that can tilt an entire court with their either-end play, to take the Warriors to five or more games. The Spurs are lucky to count on Kawhi Leonard (returning in apparent full health) to act as that force. Should he remain settled throughout, initiating movement with an open mind while still utilizing enough patience to drive the Warriors batty, Leonard can turn a series over.
Aldridge cannot, and whether that’s due to the burden of his position and skillset or some other inherent flaw unique to him is up to another column to discover, in a piece none of us want to read (though we’ll have our options). San Antonio has a very real chance of dethroning the two-time Western champs even with Aldridge only providing limited, impermanent stretches of All-Star level play. They can win even if he only provides occasional cheer.
The increasingly obvious versatility of the Spurs allows for this, as we’ve been reminded over and over again since the team downed Houston by 39 without Leonard on Thursday, since Pau Gasol moved back into the starting lineup and forward Jonathan Simmons started making waves.
Simmons isn’t fully versatile, he can merely do everything only every so often, but that’s more than enough for this team, and for this charmer of a story. Meanwhile, Gasol’s ability to insert himself into just about any play that ends with a personal, statistical outcome (good or bad) made it feel as if Game 6’s 10-point, 11-rebounds, five-assist and three-block night came from Wilt Chamberlain’s big toe. Gasol looked like he was everywhere against Houston in Game 6, but then again a seven-year cicada would have put solid on/off stats against the Rockets on Thursday.
LMA was brilliant in that game, hitting for those 34 points and 12 rebounds in ways that won’t worry the Warriors. He was just as dominant against Golden State on the season’s first night, but Golden State can hardly be bothered by that. The Warriors can lose this series with Aldridge acting as a complete non-factor, taken off the court swiftly due to matchup issues and/or unease from the San Antonio sideline, and the Warriors can dominate this series with Aldridge knocking out All-Star stats.
Golden State won’t tilt its defense in order to capitulate to both Aldridge’s All-Star past, and his play this week. In forward Draymond Green the Warriors have the league’s most versatile defender and a top Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but Draymond can beat LaMarcus Aldridge to his spots throughout the series and it won’t matter: Aldridge’s height and touch have made sure of that in the past.
Green will force Aldridge into hat-tip shots; and once his low post space is clouded and the passing lanes look busy, LaMarcus will be asked to shoot both bad and tough shots. He’ll also be asked to draw the whole of the arena’s attention on him when the Spurs clear one side and party like it’s 1999, with Aldridge in the low post. LMA has to be deliberate, and the whole of the NBA has to be ready to remind itself that most of these shots fall but half the time.
Barring an absolute laydown, this will not be LaMarcus Aldridge’s series to win or lose. Observers will tear their hair out when Aldridge fails to look like a pro in the face of Klay Thompson’s withering post defense (he’s actually quite good), and they’ll nod in assent once LaMarcus splashes in a leaning 19-footer over and around Draymond Green, even after the canny Dray slaps at the spot Aldridge eventually eased into. We’ve learned to be ready for both, with Aldridge.
It’s an odd tack to pin with the Spurs’ highest-paid player, a longtime franchise guy that for all appearances was counted on as a knowing Tim Duncan replacement upon his move to San Antonio in the summer of 2015. The pressure will be on LMA and the Spurs to turn this into a career-defining performance, but luckily these are the Spurs we’re dealing with.
LaMarcus Aldridge is just another wonderful cog, at this point. Smart enough to work with alacrity when faced with life as a top option, tall enough to take the slings and arrows when he excuses himself out of an easy jump hook, superb enough to pull out a game or three with his devastating scoring acumen. It would be wrong to consider Aldridge on the level of a Pau Gasol, or Jonathan Simmons in that series, but it would be also just as unfair to expect the 31-year old to act as the anticipatory heel or hero.
That’s too easy. There is no direct line, no obvious inference here. The San Antonio Spurs don’t work in outlines, with lists or checkmarks. The Spurs haven’t even settled into what could make this yet another Western Conference championship run, the team just knows that it’s happy to have LaMarcus Aldridge on its side.
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