SAN ANTONIO — San Antonio Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge usually avoids the postgame spotlight that comes with the territory in the NBA. After home games at AT&T Center, Aldridge often ducks away into a closed-off, restricted area past the locker room and waits alone.
There, he’ll usually stave off anxious cameramen and reporters who are waiting to talk to him.
They often lose interest and leave.
When the San Antonio Spurs host the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday, there won’t be anywhere for Aldridge to hide, regardless of outcome. A rough night in Game 2, followed by critical comments from coach Gregg Popovich shift the spotlight for this matchup squarely on Aldridge, the team’s $ 84 million power forward, especially given the news forward Kawhi Leonard will miss Game 3, not to mention the absence of point guard Tony Parker.
“He’s got a major responsibility in Game 3 to come out and get something done,” Popovich said. “Whether it’s for himself or teammates.”
The question now is: Can he? More importantly: Will he?
A quick look at the numbers would indicate Aldridge faces a steep climb toward answering the questions above, given he’s averaging a career-low 17.0 points this postseason along with career lows in player efficiency rating (15.8) and blocks (1.0).
Compare that with Aldridge’s last two playoff appearances as a Portland Trail Blazer, when he averaged 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, and you’ll see prospects for the future of this series don’t look so promising.
The struggles for Aldridge this postseason started with the loss in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against Houston, when he produced a playoff career-low four points, while surrendering, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information, a team-worst 23 points as the primary defender. Aldridge’s plus-minus of minus-36 in Game 1 of that series registered as the worst by a Spur in the playoffs under Popovich.
“I heard that the media killed me, but I didn’t read one article,” Aldridge told ESPN.com. “I don’t go on social media during the playoffs, so I didn’t see Twitter, didn’t see Instagram. I was fine. I knew that I was battling through some things, and I went out there and tried to play. I did the best I could do at that time, and that was it. We took an L. It wasn’t my performance that got us that L. Of course, I wanted to be better. But I didn’t go into a hole, and I wasn’t feeling down. I was disappointed in getting blown out so badly, of course. But personally, I just knew I had to get myself more involved.”
Aldridge finally did that in Game 6 of that series with Leonard out due to the sprained ankle that has his availability in question for Game 3 of this series.
Aldridge poured in 34 points to go with 12 rebounds, marking his first 30-and-10 game with the Spurs in the postseason, after he’d produced five such performances as a Trail Blazer. Over Game 6 of the conference semifinals and Game 1 of the conference finals, Aldridge averaged 31 points and 9.5 rebounds, while shooting 54 percent. Over Aldridge’s other 12 postseason outings this year, he has averaged 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds while connecting on just 44.7 percent from the field.
No doubt, a disastrous outing in Game 2 against Golden State further dunked Aldridge’s averages under the water, but even that plunge began in earnest with Leonard’s departure with 7:54 left in the third quarter of Game 1.
“They were throwing different things at us, throwing different things at LaMarcus; obviously sinking a little bit,” shooting guard Danny Green said. “It’s a lot easier to do that when we don’t have everybody we need to make plays. So they can trap a little more. But offensively, I think it’s a combination of them playing great defense and us not finding our chemistry, and knowing where to be with two of our main playmakers not there.”
After Leonard limped off the court, Aldridge connected on 3 of 11 shots for eight points. Then, in Game 2 with Leonard out entirely, Aldridge knocked down 4 of 11 shots for eight points. So in the 43 minutes Aldridge has played since Leonard suffered his injury, Aldridge is 7-of-22 with 16 points.
In fact, since Leonard’s injury in Game 1, Aldridge has produced more turnovers (eight) than made field goals (seven). Aldridge missed all six of his shots outside the paint in Game 2.
“I know how LaMarcus is. He’s a competitor and he wants to win,” Green said. “He’s going to come out angry [in Game 3]. Hopefully [Popovich’s criticism] helps him know that we need him.”
Aldridge attributed the struggles after Leonard’s exit to a change in strategy by the Warriors. With Leonard out, Golden State constantly double-teamed Aldridge, and on some occasions when the power forward caught the ball on the block, he’d see as many as three Warriors sprinting his direction, almost “instantly,” he said.
“I think they knew Kawhi would grow, and they wanted me to be a guy to help him win games. That’s what I’ve done. … This is his team, and I’m just here to help.”
Spurs PF LaMarcus Aldridge</cite>
One tactic the Spurs might utilize to crank up Aldridge’s production is to try getting him switched on Kevin Durant. Over the past two games, Aldridge hit 6 of 9 shots on Durant. Aldridge has connected on just 4-of-16 when guarded by Zaza Pachulia and Draymond Green this series, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“You’ve got to be decisive. But at the same time, you’ve got to read what the defense throws at you,” center Pau Gasol explained. “They’ve done a good job of mixing it up, switching, fronting, double-teaming from top to bottom, to not coming. So, they’ve done a pretty good job of changing out the coverages in the post, which makes it harder for the guy that has the ball to make plays and know what’s coming. But at the same time, you have to read it. You have to make plays. Sometimes, you’re going to make mistakes, but you want to be more aggressive than less in that position.”
That’s why Aldridge plans to employ a little bully ball in Game 3, even if he’s initially confused by the looks tossed his way by the defense.
“Even in [Game 1 against Golden State], they started to do it late, and they saw it ended up working out for them,” Aldridge said. “But I’m going to play through it, and I’ll be alright. They’ve never really doubled like that, and triple-teamed at times. So, it was definitely something different than I’ve seen. But I’ve got to play through it. I either take my shot, or find an open guy. Last game, it definitely worked to their advantage, you know, getting me passive. Next game, I won’t do that.”
Despite all the criticism thrown Aldridge’s way as of late, the Spurs insist they wouldn’t even be in this current position without his contributions both on and off the court. When San Antonio earned a regular-season record of 61-21 this season, despite Tim Duncan no longer being in the fold, it marked the first time in franchise history the club achieved back-to-back seasons with 60 wins or more.
“He’s been somebody who’s been really coachable in the sense that his defense, his hustle for 50-50 balls, running the floor, have all been more than what he was used to and what was expected,” Popovich said. “On offense, he’s been an unselfish player, probably to the point where sometimes I wish he was more selfish. But he’s fit in in that regard very well. He’s a quick learner. He’s learned the system. And he’s been a great teammate. So he’s done a wonderful job for us, especially with Timmy being gone this year.”
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford considers Aldridge’s contributions unheralded.
“We never were concerned whether he would fit in. The success he’s had, the stability that he’s brought to the franchise is just underappreciated,” Buford told ESPN.com. “As I was sitting here looking at our seasons, 61 wins, 67 wins … I just think there are a lot of things that people don’t appreciate about what LaMarcus has brought to our group, our team, our organization. He’s just fit in, in a way that I’m not sure we ever could have dreamed would happen. He’s made the transition of this year’s team after Tim [Duncan] very, very successful without getting very much recognition. Oftentimes he’s gotten overlooked or maybe even misjudged.”
When Aldridge first joined the team prior to the 2015-16 season, questions arose as to whether he’d fit into San Antonio’s culture of unselfishness. Before Aldridge’s arrival, reports in Portland had surfaced about the power forward growing envious of all the attention showered on former teammate Damian Lillard.
So how would it work with Aldridge joining a cast that already included Parker, Manu Ginobili, Duncan and Leonard, the latter being one of the league’s fastest-rising stars?
“I didn’t mind that, and that’s why I came, because it’s about the team. It’s about winning,” Aldridge told ESPN.com. “I felt like my biggest goal was to put myself in the position that offseason to win a championship. They’ve done it here. They understand what it takes. This team has been good so far. Last year, we go out and win the most games in franchise history and tie a record in the NBA. So the things I wanted to do as far as winning, I’ve been doing. It’s about winning and trying to be myself while winning. I don’t know where all those things come from.
“I think they knew Kawhi would grow, and they wanted me to be a guy to help him win games. That’s what I’ve done. My role has changed a lot at times, and people may get frustrated or mad because I’m not the guy I was in Portland. But, it’s a different role for me. This is his team, and I’m just here to help. It’s not about being upset. It’s about learning how to be that guy, honestly. I was the man that took 18 to 20 shots [per game] in Portland. So, it’s like I go from that to sometimes getting eight shots, 10 shots. It’s a process of going from that guy to this guy I am right now. I’m not upset, but it’s just been tough at times to adjust to how to be myself still when my role has kind of shifted.”
Now Aldridge finds himself trying to help teammates define their own roles behind the scenes. Having been involved in two rebuilding situations in Portland over his first nine years in the league, Aldridge believes as a veteran it’s “your responsibility to that franchise” to mentor younger players in the locker room. That hits home, especially now for Aldridge with Duncan out of the picture.
So it’s not uncommon to see Aldridge in the locker room mentoring second-year man Jonathon Simmons on how “to be himself and not settle for 3s all the time, because he makes us better by going to the basket,” or even explaining something as innocuous to Patty Mills as how to wire a Sonos sound system on his outdoor patio. A former teammate of Aldridge’s in Portland, Mills said the forward “has a knack, and a natural sort of thing about him to take young guys under his wing. And I felt that my first two years in Portland, and I was grateful for that. He hits them when they need it the most, and they listen, which is the most important thing.”
Aldridge has also bent Dewayne Dedmon‘s ear about embracing his role as a rebounder and energy player.
“When he’s on the floor, he’s got to be going 100 miles per hour, and I’m trying to get him to understand that just because you’re on the floor to rebound, it doesn’t devalue you as a teammate,” Aldridge told ESPN.com. “I’m just like, ‘Look at Tristan Thompson and guys like that, who have embraced their roles and made their teams better.’ Just because you’re not doing what Kawhi Leonard does, it doesn’t devalue you as our teammate, because everybody has a role that we need on this team to win.”
For San Antonio, Aldridge’s role in Game 3 should be to fill his role as the go-to guy, the player capable of putting the Spurs on his back and carrying them to victory against a formidable Warriors opponent. After this outing, Aldridge can’t hide in the locker room waiting for reporters to vacate the premises.
Aldridge claims that was never his intent, anyway, as his postgame routine includes several minutes of treatment which aids in recovery and enables him to be fresh for the next night on the court.
He’ll certainly need to be spry for this one, as this performance could potentially impact the future.
Aldridge has two more years on his contract with nearly $ 44 million left, and the second year of the deal contains a player option. Aldridge declined to discuss the upcoming contract situation.
“He’s got two more years. He can opt out in a year,” Buford told ESPN.com. “Every one of the guys from David Robinson to Tim [Duncan], Tony [Parker], Manu [Ginobili] and Matt Bonner — everybody’s contract ended up at some point. There’s a point in time that we’ll have to address what’s next. At that time, we’ll deal with it. As you build a team, you make decisions along the way. But what LaMarcus has contributed to our program is everything that we would have hoped for.”