SAN ANTONIO -- The Spurs didn’t jingle jangle every phone line and every connection they had back in the summer of 2015 and spend $84 million to add an extra violin to their orchestra.
You know, second fiddle.
But there was LaMarcus “Nero” Aldridge doing little more than playing “Turkey in the Straw” while the Rockets burned down the AT&T Center in the opener of the Western Conference semifinals.
In just over 25 minutes of Game 1, the 6-foot-11 power forward took seven shots, made two and scored four points, often looking like a puppy stranded in the middle of a freeway at rush hour.
Frozen, unable to decide where to go or what to do.
“There were so many areas where we did not perform well, so many things that we must improve,” said teammate Manu Ginobili.
“I have to figure out what I can do better,” said Pau Gasol. “You’ll have to ask LaMarcus about LaMarcus.”
“That’s not our problem,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “Transition defense was horrible. Our choices offensively were horrible. We just didn’t play a very wise game in any respect.”
If the Spurs circled any more wagons around Aldridge, they might have turned into an old black-and-white TV western.
Popovich, in particular, did what he often does after a bad loss, shedding his grumpy curmudgeon persona for one where he becomes the butt of every punch line.
It seemed like a lot went wrong in Game 1?
“Are you being judgmental?” he cracked. “Did a lot of things go wrong? That’s the opinion of most. So I’m going to go with that.”
Any silver lining? Like maybe you can't play worse than a game where you trailed at one point by 39?
“OK, we’ll take that one too,” Popovich said. “Pile it on. Pile it on.”
"There were so many areas where we did not perform well, so many things that we must improve."
But the fact of the matter is that the Spurs are going to need a great deal more out of Aldridge if they’re going to avoid simply being run off the court by the jackrabbit Rockets.
Actually, a great deal more than he’s delivered in his first two times around the block in San Antonio, where his scoring average dropped a year ago and again this season to just 17.3 points, lowest since his rookie NBA year in 2006-07.
“It's no excuse, but the last series (Memphis) was a little bit different,” Aldridge said. “It's just the first game. Now, we understand it's going to be a track meet, which we already knew.
“We've just got to play better, at our pace, don't play their pace. If they want to go up and down and take quick shots, that's not who we are.
“I've just got to take my time. I've got to ask for the ball more, for sure. And when I got it, just take my time. I thought I was trying to rush because there were so many mismatches on me. I was trying to rush. Normally, I take my time and take advantage of it, but I was in a rush. So next game I will definitely go slower.”
Houston, of all teams, knows that Aldridge can be capable and deadly. Back in the 2014 playoffs when he was still in Portland, the Rockets were on the wrong end of a pair of 46- and 43-point bombs he dropped on them in the first two games of a series that the Trail Blazers won in six. He was forceful, dominant, willful dropping in turnaround jumpers from the wing and finishing strong around the basket.
However, it’s one thing to put up big numbers for a team that won only a single playoff series in the nine seasons he played in Portland than to be a lead horse pulling the wagon for a perennial contender. That’s why the Spurs pursued him so vigorously in free agency.
But since arriving in San Antonio, Aldridge has had both the good and bad fortune of living in the giant shadow that’s been cast by Kawhi Leonard’s ascendance to MVP candidate. At the same time he does not have to shoulder the nightly burden of being the face of the franchise, Aldridge frequently does not strive to fill a leading man’s role on the marquee. He seems to settle to be part of the chorus.
The Spurs are coming off a first-round series where Aldridge did “yeoman’s work” -- Popovich’s term -- in averaging 14.8 points and 7.3 rebounds against the grinding Grizzlies. Now to keep pace with the let-‘er-rip Rockets will require more.
“He’s another offensive threat for us,” says Leonard. “He causes double teams down there on the low block, and once he kicks it out, we usually have wide-open shots.”
He can’t always kick it out. He’s got to be decisive and determined in taking his mid-range jumper or getting to the basket. In the first half alone in Game 1, Aldridge fumbled the ball away while cautiously eying the basket and twice missed put-back buckets when he was literally at the rim.
“I definitely have to help out Kawhi,” Aldridge said. “He competed, we all competed, but I have to take my time down there and make them pay. Once we started missing easy shots, and I missed two layups, I think after that we all just started trying to play too fast. We've got to figure it out, just take our time.”
And stop fiddling around.
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