The San Antonio Spurs (39-7) played the unstoppable Golden State Warriors (41-4) in what was tabbed “The Showdown Of The Season.”
Of course, the NBA always hypes its regular season games because very few people really get NBA crazy until the playoffs start. Game 45 of the regular season really isn’t that serious. In the case of the two teams with the NBA’s best records, they are guaranteed to face each other three more times, with a maximum of 11 meetings if the Warriors and Spurs meet in the Western Conference finals and it goes the length.
Last night, Greg Popovich rested Tim Duncan for the supposed “big game.” Some delusional folk believe that Duncan’s absence is why Golden State so thoroughly lambasted the Spurs, 120-90.
I beg to differ.
Duncan has not been a major force for some time now. While his presence adds some savvy to the post and passing to the mix, at this juncture, the Spurs should be led by Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, their two younger All-stars.
I was interested to see how Aldridge would step up in this game, despite some back ailments that caused him to miss the previous game. When the Spurs signed the 6-11, 260-pound former Portland Trail Blazer to a four-year, $80 million deal in the offseason, people were already placing the Spurs back into the Western Conference Finals and identifying them as the best bet to dethrone the World Champions in the West.
Aldridge, one of the coveted free agents this offseason, chose to play with the Spurs in Popovich’s strict but unselfish system. At the time, the former Portland Trail Blazer lauded the organization and the chance to become a champion as his motivating factor.
While the NBA world called the hook-up a perfect match, we saw early on that it would take some time for Aldridge to scale his game back enough and learn Pop’s system, before he could play with the same confident dominance he did in Portland, where he was a first-option and didn’t have to share his court time with three other potential Hall of Famers.
Aldridge also warned everyone on NBA TV that it would take some time for him to get comfortable with the city as well as his new team. “It’s like being a rookie all over again, “ he said. “I don't like change so it will be a tough adjustment.”
He wasn’t lying.
And those easy shots he said Pop’s system would create for him hasn’t happened yet. Aldridge is averaging a modest 15.6 points per game this season and 8.7 rebounds. In his last five games, however, he is only averaging 8.2 points per game and 4.6 rebounds.
Although the Spurs won four of those five games, as we saw on Monday night, Aldridge will have to step up and be more of the old “L.A.” against a squad like Golden State. Especially with Duncan on the bench.
In what could certainly be described as the biggest game of Aldridge’s Spurs stint, the big man came up small, shooting 2-of-9 from the field, scoring just five points and grabbing only three rebounds in 25 minutes of action.
Those numbers are a far cry from the past two seasons when he was the only player in the league to average at least 23.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
Aldridge remains the Trail Blazers all-time leader in rebounds (5,434) and he’s second in points (12,562). He’s also first in double-doubles (234).
It’s happened before. Superstars have to scale back their games in order to win rings. We saw Chris Bosh do it in Miami. We saw James Worthy do it with the Lakers back in the day. Kevin Love’s still trying trying to do it in Cleveland.
I could understand Aldridge struggling to find his identity early in the season.
“No matter what system he's in, there's going to be a learning curve," Popovich said during opening week.
Guard Danny Green also said it would take time.
"We're all still trying to figure it out," he said. " Even the old guys that have been here are trying to figure it out."
Well, we're 45 games into the season and Aldridge still doesn’t look comfortable. He hasn’t been able to figure out the balance between aggressiveness and unselfishness.
He’s definitely trying and the team is winning, but to defeat the 2016 Chicago Bulls..err...I mean Golden State Warriors, San Antonio will need Aldridge to be “that dude” come playoff time because his performance will become more important as the games get tougher. A better showing from Kawhi Leonard (16 points) will help as well.
He was brought in as the piece that will help the Spurs derail the GSW tornado that has ransacked the NBA. Eventually he’s going to have to take the silver and black mask off and show his true face.