James Harden and the Rockets got their asses kicked last night, losing to the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs by 39 points. The Rockets’ teamwide refusal to give a shit is to blame, but so is the Spurs’ on-again, off-again star, LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge’s tenure with the Spurs has been somewhat uneven. He has greatly improved as a defender with San Antonio (especially when protecting the rim), yet he had to sacrifice about five shots per game to fit into an egalitarian San Antonio offense. The endless stream of pick-and-pop shots turned into a trickle. Aldridge made the All-Star team last season while learning to work as a second option behind Kawhi Leonard, and once San Antonio reached the playoffs, he shredded OKC for 79 points in the first two games of their second-round series. However, his shooting touch betrayed him, the Thunder turned Tim Duncan into a pile of mush, and San Antonio lost three straight games.
Aldridge took even fewer shots this season as the team truly turned itself over to Leonard, and the power forward struggled with a heart condition. The long two-pointer is the most inefficient shot in basketball, yet Aldridge built his game around it because he was able to get open shots from that distance whenever he wanted and nail them at a steady clip. When his percentages dipped a bit this season, so did his overall efficiency. The margins are thin for someone who plays like Aldridge.
A trend emerged in the Houston series: The amount of shots Aldridge took strongly correlated with the Spurs’ fortunes. The Rockets are a tiny team who abandoned the concept of multiple big men immediately, and took it to new extremes after Nene went down with a thigh injury. According to Synergy Sports, Aldridge took 32.7 percent of his shots out of the post and scored 0.865 points per possession in the regular season. In the playoffs, those numbers have jumped to 39.7 and 1.024, respectively.
Aldridge is being asked to do more and he’s stepping up. Last night, he scored 34 points on 26 shots while grabbing 12 rebounds. It was a vintage Aldridge performance, as he hit leaning floaters, turnaround jumpers, and weird little layups in the post. The Rockets frequently sent double teams his way and he coolly navigated out of them, or simply shot before help arrived. Whenever Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sensed the game was nearing an inflection point, he’d stamp his way onto the court and demand that Patty Mills or Dejounte Murray feed Aldridge in the post. He did most of his work in the third quarter, breaking the stiffest resistance the Rockets cared to offer with a flurry of short jumpers.
Aldridge will find a much greater challenge awaiting him in his first-ever conference finals. Draymond Green is all the way on the other side of the power forward spectrum from Ryan Anderson, and those little 10-footers Aldridge relied on to bury Anderson will suddenly become contested, 14-foot leaners. He’ll have to fight for every inch of post position against the smartest defender in the NBA, and while he has a sizable height advantage, Green is probably stronger than him. Aldridge played in two games against the Warriors this season (one win, one loss) and scored 21.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting. That is an encouraging, tiny sample size, and the style that Pop will probably play against the Warriors also helps him.
The Spurs did what they could to slow the Rockets down, and against an all-time great transition offense like the Warriors, they could shit it up again. As the Cavs showed in the Finals last season, making the game an ugly mess is the best way to throw the Warriors off their game. (Kevin Durant sort of changes this calculus, but whatever.) Aldridge stands to carry a heavier load against the Warriors, especially if Kawhi Leonard is still hobbled. It’s a mountain he probably won’t climb, but if San Antonio is to spring an upset, they’ll need Aldridge to come up huge.