Down two Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge finds a strong finishing touch

HOUSTON -- As LaMarcus Aldridge sat near his locker swiping through one text message after the next, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich walked up, tapped the power forward on the shoulder, then waved over shooting guard Danny Green.

“Y’all talk,” Popovich told them.

About what, neither would divulge.

But if that brief huddle at least broached the topic of how the Spurs might be able to coax out a repeat performance this postseason of Aldridge’s 34-point, 12-rebound night in the team’s 114-75 pummeling of the Houston Rockets in Game 6 on Thursday, that’s certainly a conversation worth having.

After all, the 39-point win, which ranks as the second-largest series-clinching win in franchise history, propels San Antonio into the Western Conference finals, where on Sunday the Spurs face the Golden State Warriors on the road. Aldridge’s bullying ways on the block played largely into the victory, with star forward Kawhi Leonard and point guard Tony Parker out of commission due to injuries. That needs to continue in the conference finals because, as Green said, “We’ll need it.”

“Well, you know, he’s been like that through these first two rounds,” Popovich said of Aldridge. “He’s really turned it on, demanded the ball, got in good position using his body, and not always settling for a jumper. [He got] to the rim, did a really good job.”

Aldridge’s ability to dominate down low alongside Pau Gasol drew so much attention from Houston’s defenders that it allowed San Antonio to squeeze out spurts of “the beautiful game,” in which the ball moved all along the perimeter at lightning speed for open looks.

That came as a result of the Spurs absolutely pounding the Rockets in the paint. San Antonio outscored Houston 62-18 in the paint, shooting 62 percent from that area, compared to 24 percent for the Rockets, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.

So it’s no surprise that of the six 30-point, 10-rebound postseason games in Aldridge’s career, three have come against the Rockets. Two of those performances came in a series-clinching win (2014, 2017). Aldridge joins Dirk Nowitzki as the only active players to have produced multiple 30-point, 10-rebound games in series-clinching wins against a single opponent.

Nowitzki accomplished the feat twice against Aldridge’s team, the Portland Trail Blazers (2003, 2011).

Most players in the locker room expressed shock in San Antonio’s performance with both Leonard and Parker out. Leonard spent all of Thursday’s matchup in the locker room, including receiving some treatment during the game that will enable him to play Sunday in Game 1.

“Yeah, I think everybody was [surprised with the performance],” Green said. “Nobody expected that, especially [with] no Kawhi and no Tony. It just goes to show you that on any given night, anything can happen in the NBA -- even in the playoffs.”

The Spurs know that all too well, which is why at times Thursday night they used a lineup with a backup point guard (Patty Mills), a big who rarely saw the floor for Golden State two years ago due to injuries (David Lee), a forward nicknamed “Slo-Mo” (Kyle Anderson), an undrafted wing who made the NBA after plucking down a $150 registration fee at a D-League tryout (Jonathon Simmons) and a rookie point guard who played just 38 games in the regular season (Dejounte Murray).

The lineup of Mills, Murray, Anderson, Lee and Simmons hadn’t played a single minute together during the regular season. Yet here they were inflicting damage on the Rockets, in part because of the tone set by Aldridge inside.

“It was tough, man,” Rockets guard Patrick Beverley said. “They stayed with a big lineup, and it gave us problems.”

The trio of Aldridge, Murray and Gasol combined for 33 of San Antonio’s 60 rebounds, as the Spurs pummeled the Rockets on the glass by a 23-board margin.

“When adversity hits, you have two options,” Gasol said in addressing the team’s win sans Parker and Leonard. “You can complain and whine, feel bad for yourself, or regroup and toughen up, play your best and give your best. That’s what we did with the guys we had healthy and ready to play. LaMarcus had a tremendous game, and you have to give him a lot of credit. Today, he was able to get into a much better rhythm and it was great to see.”

Aldridge said that “knowing I was gonna touch it” helped him significantly in establishing a rhythm. On most nights, Aldridge is asked to share the ball with Leonard and Parker. But on this occasion, with both stars out, the ball belonged to Aldridge, and he took advantage.

“I just touched it a little bit more tonight,” Aldridge said. “So I had a chance to figure it out. I was trying to be more dominant down there. So I was willing to take some contested shots tonight and got into my rhythm early. Kawhi’s a great player, but we have guys that are ready to play.”