SAN ANTONIO --- On one possession shortly before halftime in Game 2, San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge caught the ball 9 feet from the basket, backed down Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka with four dribbles and tossed in a right-handed hook shot.
Next possession, Aldridge took four more dribbles against Ibaka, spun and threw in a short left-handed hook shot. Next possession, the ball again went to Aldridge, and Ibaka, apparently out of answers, fouled Aldridge , sending him to the free-throw line.
Aldridge has become an irrepressible singular force in the Western Conference semifinals. The fact he is doing it for a franchise that champions team over the individual speaks further to just how good he has been as the series, tied at one game apiece, moves to Oklahoma City for Friday’s Game 3.
“The NBA is about confidence,” Aldridge said. “If guys don’t believe they can do it, they can’t play well. I can play well. I think having Pop (coach Gregg Popovich), Tim (Duncan) and all the guys believe in me too, that’s why I’m playing so well.”
Not only is he averaging 39.5 points in two games, but he has done it while making 75% of his shots from the floor. He’s become a model of efficiency, needing fewer than 30 minutes in Game 1 to score 38 points.
Aldridge became the only Spurs player besides George Gervin to score 38 or more points in consecutive playoff games, quite a feat considering how many playoff games San Antonio has competed in during the Duncan era alone.
The five-time NBA All-Star has been such a difficult one-on-one matchup in this series that Thunder coach Billy Donovan said he was pleased that his team at least defended him better on pick-and-pop plays even though Aldridge dominated the Thunder when posting up, en route to a season-high 41 points.
“Aldridge obviously had a great game,” Donovan said. “But I thought we made it really, really hard on him. He made some very difficult shots and got some points late from the three-point line.”
That Aldridge, 30, has amassed his two highest point totals of the season in his last two games underscores how assimilating into the Spurs’ offense has been a process in his first season with the franchise. Popovich characterized Aldridge’s adjustment as “steady improvement and recognition.”
“Any new player in a new program, it’s a progression,” Popovich said. “It takes a little bit of time to get comfortable with the system. And secondary, with teammates, who does what, when, where, how.”
Even as Aldridge was gaining a comfort level with the Spurs during the regular season – he averaged 18 points, second-best behind Kawhi Leonard – the team still thrived, winning a franchise-record 67 regular season games. The sustained excellence in San Antonio, as well as its culture, attracted the coveted free agent last summer.
“I wouldn’t have come here, and I don’t think they would have wanted me here, if I didn’t fit into what they envisioned and what they saw from me,” Aldridge said. “It takes time for a player in a different system to adjust and it’s been a process all year, but it’s definitely getting better at the right time.”
The emergence of Aldridge – as well as Leonard’s ability offensively and defensively – has enabled San Antonio to remain one of the league’s elite teams even as The Big Three of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili transition to role players during the latter stages of their careers.
When Aldridge is dominating like he has, the Spurs can look one-dimensional. A mostly veteran Spurs team will repeatedly feed him the ball, a testament to their selflessness.
“Aldridge is such a good isolation player,” Donovan said. “And obviously they have terrific guys that have been in their system for a long period of time, so there’s always that balance that I think Pop’s probably striking. And he’s really striking it well.”
Donovan threw some double teams at Aldridge late in Game 2 to slow him. It may be the best tactic given how well Aldridge has maneuvered with the ball in the post, converted up-and-under moves, swished fadeaway mid-range jump shots and even made his first two three-pointers of the season in this series.
Aldridge says his task is clear: “Try to be dominant down low.”
Toward the end of his first season here, no problem with that.