Fans spent last season fretting over the physical and metaphorical shortcomings of LaMarcus Aldridge’s heart. Now, amid his best stretch as a Spur and after notching a new career regular-season high, it’s receiving some well-deserved praise:
“He was awarded that All-Star position for which he deserved. He’s basically carried us, him with his talent, everybody else with their heart. The game goes along, and you realize that his heart is as big or bigger than anybody’s. He’s on the board, getting rebounds, putting stuff back, blocking shots, doing a little bit of everything that we have to do to win games.”
In collecting their six-straight win and completing a season-saving homestand, it was the All-Star big man again doing the heavy lifting, pouring in 45 points on 19-of-28 shooting (guarded primarily by DPOY candidate Rudy Gobert, no less), to go along with nine rebounds, three blocks and a steal. Here’s Manu Ginobili on what he’s seen from Aldridge this season:
“It’s hard to say MVP-type level... but First-NBA Team or stuff like that. He was ridiculous, and the previous two games, too. He’s carrying us. He’s just saying ‘OK, follow me, guys, and we’ll be OK.’ The first half was ridiculous — he scored 28 and we all, one, two, three points.”
That kind of burden is seen on many offensive possessions, with the Spurs system acting more as a Rube Goldberg machine, a perfunctory series of back screens and cross screens and entry passes, all to simply find Aldridge on the left block and allow him to go to work.
Ginobili knows the team is still capable of more free-flowing, “beautiful” stretches, but he also recognizes the lack of shot creation on this roster and how critical that makes Aldridge:
“Of course, there are some games in which the offense is gonna flow great and we’re gonna have open shots and fast-break points. But when it gets to playing against tough teams, physical, and it’s hard to score, the ball is gonna go through him... We are not the most talented team in the league, and he’s the one who has the most resources to score — against one or sometimes two opponents.”
The team needed all 45 of Aldridge’s points to eke out a 124-120 win over a Jazz squad that had taken all three previous meetings. With super-rookie Donovan Mitchell coming alive in the fourth quarter (in which he scored 12 of his 33 points) and hitting a number of contested three-pointers (“ridiculous”, as Gregg Popovich called them), it could’ve easily been four out of four.
As great as Aldridge was, the Spurs also got a crucial boost from a supporting cast that has not always been able to complement the All-Star’s superlative efforts. On Friday, they got perhaps Patty Mills’ best game of the season: 25 points (on 8-of-12 shooting), six of which came in overtime, to go with four assists and his usual high level of activity on both sides of the floor. He was joined by Manu Ginobili (18 points) and Rudy Gay (15), providing the kind of all-around production that this version of the Spurs will need if they’re to continue to make noise in the weeks to come.
A different kind of noise has followed the team as of late, as it continues to cope, in its own quasi-insulated way, with the uncertainty around Kawhi Leonard’s injury. It culminated with news of a players-only meeting with Leonard, eyebrow-raising comments from Tony Parker and a number of fragmented reports that poke mere pinholes of light on a situation that no one still has a firm grip on.
Pop, for the record, said he knew nothing about Sunday’s meeting before it happened and has not learned any specifics since: “I wasn’t invited — I can take a hint,” he joked. Pau Gasol also addressed the situation, asserting that the team isn’t letting this or any other issue from affecting their performance down the stretch:
“The focus is on each and every game. We really don’t let those distractions affect us — I think it’s shown, so that’s just the way I think it’s gonna be from now on. There’s too much on the line to be distracted by whatever issue might be on the table. It’s a veteran group for the most part. We understand how this business goes, and we’ll put everything on the side and do the best we can on the floor.”
The noise will continue as long as there’s uncertainty around Leonard, stoked with each enigmatic pre-game injury report and with each report that casts more color on the situation. The Spurs organization won’t be able to silence it by keeping things as they are, but its players can certainly drown some of it out by keeping up their winning ways.
A few more notes on...
A pivotal 6-0 homestand
Manu Ginobili said it felt like the team had hit rock-bottom after their 0-3 road trip, with the team falling as low as tenth. Now? The tone has changed, and the shift in attitude after losing those games at Golden State, OKC, and Houston appears to have made all the difference:
“You can tell — it’s easy to see — that we competed really hard. That we supported each other. We got to a point after the road trip that it felt like we touched bottom, that we really had to get it together to support each other, to fight for every possession, if not we were out. We found it, but it’s not over. We still have nine games, and we have to keep building.”
Getting numbers like this over that six-game stretch helps, too:
LaMarcus Aldridge's averages over the Spurs' 6-0 homestand:— Bruno Passos (@bouncepassos) March 24, 2018
32.2 points on 57.6 FG%
35.5% usage rate
+19.7 net rating pic.twitter.com/nwjk87TS4z
Rudy Gay, doing more than just scoring
Pop has often commented on what he wants out of Gay, a talented forward who he knows can put the ball in the hole. The doubts, however, have hovered around his defensive awareness and ability to make plays without the ball in his hands. Gay did score on Friday — scoring 15 points and providing the team with a go-to force on offense while Aldridge sat — but he was also helpful on defense, switching onto ball-handlers and contesting shots, and came up with a big offensive rebound and putback in overtime to put San Antonio up 120-116.
Another All-Defense case for Danny Green
After swatting away another two on Friday, Green leads all NBA guards right now in blocks per game (1.2) and total blocks (70). As is often the case, he took the game’s toughest defensive assignment in Mitchell and made the talented guard work for every inch of separation against him until fouling out in overtime.
A good name for a blog
Anytime we get a shoutout from a Spurs player, intentional or not, I’ll share it. Here’s Kyle Anderson (5 points, 7 boards, 4 steals) speaking after the game:
“Great effort... Had a few lapses, but we didn’t let that determine the outcome of the game; just kept pounding the rock and, you know, it was a good effort.”