There are smart NBA analysts who will argue that, despite having only played 47 of his team’s 73 games this season, Rudy Gobert deserves real consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award. The argument has merit. Since his return to the Jazz lineup on January 19, Utah has been the best defensive team in the league by a ridiculous margin - more than five points per 100 possessions better than the second-place Spurs during that period. Gobert’s consistent dominance is partly what made Friday night’s 124-120 overtime Spurs victory over Utah so exciting to watch.
By the end of the game, I was genuinely hoping for Gobert to try and guard LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with a career-high 45 points (28 of which came with Gobert as the primary defender) on 12-of-19 shooting. Aldridge started the game by taking advantage of Gobert’s proclivity for patrolling the paint and protecting the rim — in other words, he rained mid-range jumpers.
Aldridge finished the game a scorching 9-of-15 (60%) from midrange and 3-of-4 (75%) from floater range. For comparison, he came into the game shooting 41.3% on seven midrange attempts per game and 45.8% on nearly four floater-range attempts per game. Even though Aldridge was hitting, he didn’t settle. He used the threat of his jump shot to get defenders off balance and susceptible to the drive.
The threat of Aldridge pick-and-popping became so great that the Jazz began sending panicked double and triple teams to defend it, which allowed Aldridge to find the open man.
Finally, the Jazz recognized how helpless they were to stop Aldridge, and even began sending help to the DPOY candidate on post-ups. The reason post play has gone out of style in recent years is because they can often be guarded in isolation without giving up an efficient shot. Post-ups have largely been replaced by plays that facilitate dribble penetration (e.g. the spread pick-and-roll). Those types of action force help defense and rotations. Here, Aldridge’s post-up plays the role of a dribble drive by scrambling the defense. He sees the double team and nets a hockey assist by passing to Dejounte Murray, who passes to a wide open Kyle Anderson:
Analysts often discuss the value of three-point shooters like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and JJ Redick in terms their “gravity.” Even when they don’t have the ball, they are pulling defenders toward them. It’s rare that a post-up player has this same effect, but Aldridge reached that point against Utah. In the play below, Manu Ginobili sees the defense is bending towards Aldridge in the post. When he sees Donovan Mitchell leaning a little too far towards Aldridge, Manu zips a bullet to Davis Bertans who nails the corner three:
(Side note: how many guys in the league can routinely make that pass? LeBron James, James Harden, Ginobili . . . end of list. I’ve run out of superlatives for Manu.)
Aldridge had dismantled Gobert so thoroughly in the first half that I was actually disappointed when the Jazz started the second half with Gobert on Kyle Anderson (essentially playing center field) and switched Derrick Favors onto Aldridge. By then it was too late. Aldridge had found his rhythm, scoring 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting with Favors as the primary defender. By the end of the game, the Spurs had scored at a rate of 123.1 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge on the floor, the best offensive rating on the team. Not bad for a “dinosaur” as he’s referred to by some NBA writers.
It’s hard to overstate Aldridge’s brilliance on Friday, but he wasn’t the only Spur to come up big down the stretch. Patty Mills finished with 25 points, including a perfect 5-of-5 from midrange. Two of those five midrangers were pull-up 21-footers in overtime that buoyed San Antonio’s offense in crunch time. If you’re worried about the unsustainable shooting it took for the Spurs to win, that’s fair. They hit a lot of contested long twos. But, the bottom line is San Antonio needed this one, badly. With all the Woj-induced noise swirling around Kawhi Leonard’s status, it was encouraging to see the team go out and take this one. No, Aldridge cannot be counted on to hit like this consistently (it was a career high night, after all) but he’s an All-Star and a top-15 player. Guys like that have nights like these sometimes, and San Antonio is fortunate that Friday night was one of those nights. Donovan Mitchell will deservedly get a lot of hype, despite the loss, but Aldridge was the real game changer.
Spurs Shot Chart