If you watched the San Antonio Spurs’ first two games, you wouldn’t have recognized LaMarcus Aldridge. The four-time All-Star was tentative through his new team’s 1-1 start, looking more like a low-volume shooting and rebounding power forward who might have warranted $8-10 million yearly in this summer’s free agent class, not the $21 million max he got.
After the pair of contests, Aldridge’s usage percentage stood at 18.3. Since there are five players on the court and 100 divided by five is 20, that means LaMarcus was using fewer possessions than the average Spur during his time on the court. Not only would that number be a career low, it’s a far cry from the 30.2 percent of the Portland Trail Blazers’ possessions he used in 2014-15.
But in game No. 3, Aldridge’s old self saved the Spurs:
It was an ugly afternoon tilt in Boston, and neither team could get anything going on offense in the first three quarters. The defense was strong from both the Spurs and Celtics, and turnovers (34 between the two teams) and poor outside shooting (a combined 11-of-48 from three) plagued both squads.
Aldridge’s first-half offensive performance was indicative of the Spurs’ struggles and looked eerily similar to what he had done against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Brooklyn Nets. He was 2-of-7 from the floor, 2-of-4 from the free-throw line and had a modest six points. Sure, the 10 rebounds and four assists before the intermission were great, but those weren’t the main reasons San Antonio brought him in.
At halftime, Gregg Popovich switched his mindset. According to the San Antonio Express-News‘ Jeff McDonald, Pop did so by “basically becoming [Trail Blazers head coach] Terry Stotts.”
Coming out of the locker room, Aldridge took shots on the Spurs’ first three possessions of the half.
The first one was a nicely-designed lob from Duncan to Aldridge for an alley-oop layup. LMA missed the other two attempts, but the damage was done — his aggressiveness had returned, and the confidence from being trusted by Pop would spur him on to a great second half.
And to put that mini-flurry of attempts in perspective, the first two games didn’t once see the power forward attempt a field goal or free throw on consecutive Spurs possessions that weren’t separated by a timeout. His looks were spread out, and it was mostly up to him to find shots within the flow of the offense.
For a rhythm scorer and player who’s used to being a high-usage No. 1 offensive option, that just wasn’t working.
So that’s why those three attempts in a row were so important, even if Aldridge missed two of them.
The Spurs later on found their offense stalling in the fourth quarter, scoring just two points in a span of more than three minutes. What did they do? They dumped the ball into LaMarcus, of course.
Now that Aldridge felt more comfortable, this strategy turned out to be very successful for San Antonio. The big man took four consecutive mid-range jumpers, making the first three to somewhat subdue a Celtics run. On the Spurs’ possession following those attempts, he found Kawhi Leonard for a huge corner three after Marcus Smart came over to double the big man.
Energized from finding an offensive rhythm, Aldridge packed Isaiah Thomas’s layup on the next play, then snuffed out a Celtics inbounded alley-oop lob with 28 seconds left to seal the game for San Antonio. In fact, all game long, his rim protection was pretty solid, as he went straight up to cause many misses close to the basket.
Now that’s more like it.
Overall, Aldridge’s 24 points (on 18 shots), 14 rebounds, five assists, one steal and one block were the biggest reason behind San Antonio’s 95-87 win. If last season’s Spurs had’ve played that game, I don’t know if they would’ve had the offensive firepower to overcome a scrappy Celtics team on a night when they were so out of sorts offensively.
But with Aldridge’s pure shot-making ability, they have what it takes to win ugly games.
The trick for San Antonio going forward has to be getting Aldridge’s touches in the offense more concentrated. Instead of spreading the ball around in the team’s famous motion offense to get him an open look once every few minutes, he needs a few consecutive shots to get him going, whether through designed plays or isolation opportunities. Then, he’ll have the rhythm and confidence to knock down shots within the flow of the offense.
It was just one game, but San Antonio’s big offseason acquisition has started to pay huge dividends.
Welcome to the Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge.