In the summer of 2015, the San Antonio Spurs went shopping like they never have before.
Long content to spend big money on their core while using free agency to sprinkle role players around them, the Spurs lavished a max contract on LaMarcus Aldridge, a four-time All-Star from Portland who would join Kawhi Leonard as one of the focal points of the franchise after Tim Duncan retired.
Now with Leonard ailing and San Antonio facing mighty Golden State in the Western Conference finals, the Spurs need Aldridge to take control.
“LaMarcus has to score for us,” coach Gregg Popovich said after the 136-100 wipeout in Game 2 that put the Warriors up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. “He can’t be timid. He turned down shots in the first quarter. He can’t do it. You’ve got to score.”
Aldridge had just eight points on 4-for-11 shooting in Game 2 as he was swarmed all night by a Warriors defense that was free to double- and sometimes triple-team him since it didn’t have to worry about Leonard, who missed the game with an ankle injury. Aldridge was 0 for 2 with two turnovers in the first quarter and knows he has to be more aggressive when the two teams meet for Game 3 in San Antonio on Saturday.
“The ball has to move, but I have to take a shot if it’s there,” Aldridge said Thursday. “I was trying to make the extra pass, but I have to score, too. If I’m open, I have to shoot.”
The Spurs signed him to a four-year, $80 million deal to take some of the scoring burden off of aging stars Duncan, who retired last summer, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
“Timmy’s last couple years, he couldn’t score nearly like he used to and Manu’s getting older and Tony’s getting older,” Popovich told the AP in March. “Luckily we had Kawhi who was going through the roof. But there’s got to be an inside threat, somebody else that can score for you. So LaMarcus was a huge opportunity for us to try to convince him to come.”
Aldridge was everything they needed in the clincher over Houston in the conference semifinals. While Leonard sat out with the ankle injury, Aldridge scored 34 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to help the Spurs to a stunning 39-point victory.
Aldridge brought it in Game 1 against the Warriors as well, scoring 28 points in a two-point defeat. Leonard went down just over halfway through that game and his status for Game 3 remains undecided. But Golden State blitzed Aldridge from all angles in Game 2 and the Spurs are scrambling to find their identity with both Leonard and Parker out with injuries.
Since Leonard’s ankle rolled on Zaza Pachulia’s foot while taking a jump shot in Game 1, Aldridge has turned the ball over eight times and made only seven shots against Golden State’s swarming defense.
“They’ve been throwing different things at us, throwing different things at LaMarcus,” guard Danny Green said. “Obviously, thinking a little bit. It’s a lot easier to do that when we don’t have everybody that we need to make plays so they can trap a little more on those guys.
“But offensively, I think it’s a combination of them playing good defense and also us not finding our chemistry, not finding our rhythm, and not knowing where to be with two of our main playmakers not there.”
The key, Aldridge said, was finding a balance between being assertive and looking to score while also making sure that he keeps his teammates involved and hits them with passes when they’re open on the perimeter.
“It was definitely something different than I’ve seen here, but you’ve got to play through it,” Aldridge said of the increased attention from the Warriors. “I either take my shot or try to find the open guy. I think the last game it definitely worked in their advantage with me getting passive, but next game I won’t do that.”
For San Antonio, there is no time to lose. Popovich made that abundantly clear in his pointed remarks after Game 2 when he lamented the team’s lack of intensity and belief.
It all starts with a team’s star players, and Aldridge is the biggest one still standing for the ailing Spurs.
“I think he’s got a major responsibility in Game 3 to come out and get something done, whether it’s for himself or teammates,” Popovich said. “They come after him, to find somebody, turn it over, take good shots. He’s got to do it. No doubt about it.”
AP freelance writer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.
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