LaMarcus Aldridge’s postseason has been up-and-down, to say the least.
The Spurs big man has played well, and he’s been a no-show throughout San Antonio’s first two rounds.
But with Kawhi Leonard out for Game 6 of San Antonio’s Western Conference semifinal against the Rockets, the Spurs couldn’t afford Aldridge to be down. They couldn’t afford another no-show.
While James Harden turned in a dud performance for the Rockets Thursday, Aldridge rose to the occasion for the Spurs.
And because of that, the Spurs are moving to the Western Conference finals.
Aldridge was a force in the Spurs’ 114-75 Game 6 win, scoring 34 points on 16-of-26 shooting, pulling down 12 rebounds, and committing only two turnovers, in a plus-21 performance.
Aldridge had struggled on post-ups all postseason, but on Thursday, he was stellar, exploiting the Rockets’ poor defensive switches, and particularly dominating James Harden in one-on-one match-ups.
While the strong LMA performance was great for the Spurs, it might have been bigger for Aldridge himself.
The 31-year-old big man is in the second year of a four-year, $84 million deal, and while an excellent Game 6 doesn’t erase the disappointments from earlier in the playoffs or make his game more compatible with the Spurs’ upcoming series with the Warriors, it will get people off his back.
There were countless columns, takes, and hits on Aldridge written before Game 6. This, combined with his strong Game 3 performance, will silence the calls for him to “rejoin the living”.
Aldridge is a rock-solid player who isn’t as versatile as the modern NBA style might demand. He’s not Karl Anthony-Towns, he’s not DeMarcus Cousins — his inside-outside threat is his 18-foot jumper on the pick-and-pop and back-to-the-basket play.
Remember when big men played with their backs to the basket?
In a series where the Rockets played four and five-out offense and targeted the Spurs’ big man in the pick-and-roll, there were bound to be struggles.
While it was fair to criticize him for not taking advantage of mismatches in the low post, letting Aldridge take the bulk of shots in the manner he would like to take them (long, back-to-the-basket possessions) created somewhat of a no-win situation for the Spurs before Game 6: even if Aldridge was hyper-efficient (say, made 60 percent of his shots), 3 is greater than 2, and the Rockets were putting up an insane amount of 3-point shots in this series.
Without Leonard on the court, the Spurs had no choice but to let Aldridge pound the rock. Those isolation sets that would go to Kawhi Leonard — those went to Aldridge Thursday night (on top of his established allotment). On the possessions that the Spurs didn’t ask Aldridge to create offense himself, they moved the ball with extreme precision and efficiency.
This isn’t to say that the Spurs are better without Leonard — far from it, despite what the scoreboard might say. Nor is this to say that Leonard should get more touches in the Spurs’ matchup with the Warriors.
It’s only to say that the Spurs went all-in on Aldridge for one game and he responded with his best game of the playoffs.
No matter how this postseason pans out, it’s going to be hard to consider it a failure for LMA.