BOSTON -- Coming out of a first half best left forgotten by everyone who was unfortunate enough to have witnessed it, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called on LaMarcus Aldridge to try and get something going. That resulted in a couple of layups, some free throws and a jumper. It was the entire LaMarcus Aldridge package and it helped San Antonio maintain a double-digit lead over the Celtics in a game where generating offense was a difficult proposition for both teams.
Getting Aldridge acclimated has been the dominant theme of the Spurs' season and probably will be for the rest of it as well. It's a hell of a thing when you add an All-NBA player to a team with a bunch of future Hall of Famers and an emerging superstar like Kawhi Leonard, especially a team like the Spurs who have been so dominant for so long in part because everyone knows what each teammate is capable of doing.
Aldridge's first two games as a Spur were uneven. He contributed here and there, but we had yet to see the player who emerged as an All-Star in Portland. Until he's able to find a consistent rhythm, every game is going to be dissected and pored over for signs of integration and general Spursiness.
"It wouldn't matter what system he's in, there's going to be a learning period," Popovich said. "It's the third game of the season. It doesn't matter who he's playing for this year. If it's not Portland, he's going to have to learn a new system."
True enough, but these are the Spurs. Their system isn't just an ingrained part of their identity, it's an iconic way of life. Sunday's game against the Celtics was a revelation, because once Aldridge got going, he didn't stop. Those early plays in the third quarter were the catalyst, but the big payoff happened later in the game when the C's made a spirited comeback to slice into the lead. Coming out of a timeout with five minutes and holding a five-point lead, the Spurs went to Aldridge again and again, and he responded with three straight baskets.
"We tried to get him the ball, make him more comfortable," Popovich said. "He made three or four shots in a row that helped us win the game. They were making a great run, they were energetic, they did a great job. They executed really well. This is a fine team, they're just inexperienced. They executed and moved the ball better than we did. But LaMarcus saved our ass."
Aldridge had 24 points and 14 rebounds in San Antonio's 95-87 win, which just about equaled his production through his first two games combined. He's been saying the right things ever since he arrived in San Antonio this past summer, but there still comes a point when Aldridge needs to be Aldridge. It's fair to say he's still finding his way.
"Guys are telling me to shoot it and take my shots, but then you go to a new team, and you're always going to try to be a guy to make the extra pass and be unselfish," Aldridge said. "So I think I'm trying to figure out my way of being unselfish and take my shots."
There's no way this can't work. Aldridge is in his prime. The Spurs are an exceptionally smart and savvy basketball operation, from the front office to the coaches to the players. The Coyote could probably get 10 points a night with all that spacing and shooting. Plus, there's already evidence of some adaptation.
"They're posting up more but they're still playing the same way," Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted. "I know that sounds contradictory. Whether it's through pick and rolls or the post-up, it starts their cutting and movement game and then they've got all kinds of spacing and savvy around it. So they slice you up if you're not careful."
A few lockers over from Aldridge, David West was extolling the virtues of playing for San Antonio. The Spurs' other big free agent addition, West left $12 million on the table to sign up for the minimum in the hopes of playing meaningful basketball. West is coming off the bench and playing less than 15 minutes a night. In another system, on another team, he could still get you 12 and eight every night. On this one, he's the ninth man.
"If I was worried about that stuff I would have stayed in Indy," West said. "It's just not about that at this stage for me. I've been trying to explain it to people, but honestly it was either retirement or come here. It was either get myself in a situation like this or walk away from the game. I wanted to give myself another shot at it and trust this group and the way they do things, let the chips fall where they may after that."
The Spurs are so deep, it's practically unfair. Tony Parker, once the future of the franchise, is having his minutes kept in check and his play has been solid, if unspectacular. The Spurs will need him to be excellent again in the postseason, but for now, they can afford to let Patty Mills get back up to speed after a shoulder injury derailed his 2014-15 season.
Tim Duncan can play his standard 28 minutes, offering high-level defense and rebounding. That defense has become even more important without Tiago Splitter to help anchor the back line. Small sample caveats abound, but the Spurs' defense has been porous without either Duncan or Aldridge on the floor so far.
Then there's the still-brilliant Manu Ginobili. During an otherwise desultory first half, when turnovers vied with missed shots for statistical dominance, Ginobili offered a welcome reprieve. He can do more with a shoulder fake than most players can accomplish with a crossover dribble, and his passing remains sublime.
How did Manu deliver this pass on time and on target to Aldridge? pic.twitter.com/U0pQVIBrfi— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) November 1, 2015
We haven't even mentioned Danny Green and Boris Diaw, who have been terrific role players during this latest Spurs' run.
But down the stretch, the Spurs didn't need their Big 3 to take them home. After Aldridge was done roasting the C's, they turned to Leonard, who had a size mismatch against Marcus Smart in the Celtics' three-guard lineup. Smart battled and won a few of the possessions, but Leonard was still able to post him up and score. Others teams with this much talent have struggled trying to identify roles. The Spurs just find the mismatches and attack.
"Everybody's smart and can play," West said admiringly. "There's a certain level of basketball intelligence that's pretty awesome to be around and watch it every day."
That's what they do and what they've done for almost two decades. It's been a brilliant run. Now, with Aldridge on board and Leonard emerging as a star in his own right, the Spurs should be able to keep doing it long after everyone thought it would reach its natural conclusion. It's an amazing thing to behold.
Just imagine what it will be like when everyone gets comfortable.
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