The Golden State Warriors beat the truly unwatchable Houston Rockets last night without reigning and future MVP Stephen Curry, who briefly tested his injured right ankle/foot in warm-ups and decided that he couldn't go. The game wasn't a blowout of the caliber Game 1 was, but the Dubs still led practically from wire to wire and were able to keep the woeful Rockets at arm's length the entire game and put them away for good with about four minutes remaining.
I kept trying to concentrate on the game, but the same nagging, creeping thought kept pecking away at the back of my brain.
Why is LaMarcus Aldridge playing against the Grizzlies?
Understand, the two situations are apples and oranges since no two people or injuries are the same. Curry must be seriously compromised to miss a playoff game considering how adamant he and his star teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have been all season long about playing in regular season games and pushing to the limit to chase 73 wins. No one goes through the interminable, grueling 82-game season without suffering through numerous bumps and bruises, and they play through that discomfort unless they're truly unable.
Steve Kerr shares several characteristics with mentor Gregg Popovich, but among their differences has been Kerr's willingness to push his stars to win regular season games. He's let them try to topple the wins record of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, while also playing them deep into the games even when the margin seemed fairly comfortable. He hasn't always trusted his bench, especially the 9-15 guys, and to be fair they haven't given him many reasons to.
As we've seen over the past two decades, no matter how cautious Pop is with his players during the regular season, the playoffs present a clear line of demarcation for the Spurs. More seasons than not one or more of his stars have dealt with some kind of malady during playoff runs, and yet they've always been run out there, even if they were producing diminishing returns, because the playoffs are do-or-die and you dance with the one that brought you and all the other cliches.
Tim Duncan has played through severely sprained ankles and plantar fasciitis. Manu Ginobili has given it a go with a broken nose, a stress fracture in his leg and torn ligaments in his ankle, not to mention that broken arm he suffered just before the Grizzlies series in 2011. Tony Parker has had hamstring issues the past three playoffs and was beat up in 2006 as well. In almost every instance, Pop has given his guys the license to determine their fate.
In fact, I'd argue that toughness is one of the characteristics Popovich values most in players. Sure, he wants guys who are coachable and competitive and "are over themselves," but having a high mental and physical threshold for pain is clearly something he wants in his guys. He wants dudes who he has to tell to sit instead of the other way around.
I thought this quote he offered about why Aldridge appealed to him as a free agent was telling.
I thought he carried a big burden. I thought he played night after night after night. He played injured and that really impressed me. All the minutes he played and back-to-backs and that sort of thing. We knew we had a warrior in him, somebody that was gonna show up and be there and could handle that responsibility.
You don't have to do much reading between the lines to see this for the LeBronian sub-tweet that it is (hint: think who Aldridge's predecessor was). Aldridge was in his walk year last season, with a max-contract at risk, and he still refused to shut it down, playing through torn ligaments in his thumb, even after Wes Matthews was lost with a torn Achilles in early March, effectively ending what slim title chances the Blazers had. He kept soldiering on.
Certainly by now Aldridge has nothing to prove to Pop or anyone else when it comes to his toughness, but it's apparent that the pinky he dislocated on April 7th at Golden State is not close to 100 percent. Aldridge has it wrapped tight to his ring finger and it seemed to bother him early on Sunday night in Game 1 against Memphis, where he started 1-of-5 and didn't have his usual touch around the rim. Aldridge was less aggressive than usual going after rebounds and seemed hesitant to dunk the ball. When asked about how his hand felt, he said it felt better as the game went on but declined to speak further about it when asked a follow-up.
The current Grizzlies are in worse shape than even the miserable Rockets. They've got two or three guys in their rotation who might not even be NBA-caliber players if everyone was healthy. They pose zero threat to the Spurs, even after taking the "appropriate fear," into account.
Aldridge doesn't need to be out there. His presence is a luxury, "superfluous poppycock" personified. If ever there was a time to play it safe in the playoffs, it's now -- against this Memphis team. Maybe Pop would worry that it seems disrespectful, to signal that you think so little of a postseason opponent that you're willing to sit your second-best player. But I'd argue that being at absolute 100 percent against the Thunder, and hopefully the Warriors after them, should take priority over everything else.
I'd love for Pop to take a cue from Kerr and Curry and sit Aldridge for the rest of the series. Playing him doesn't seem worth the risk.