OKLAHOMA CITY – The challenge is clear for the Spurs as they prepare for Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinals playoff series against the Thunder: Find more scoring support for LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star big man who has scored 79 points in the first two games.
Their collective basketball IQ is Mensa-eligible, but they received a reminder from an unlikely and unsung hero of Oklahoma City’s 98-97 win in Game 2.
“One man can’t beat us,” Thunder guard Dion Waiters told reporters in Oklahoma City when the team returned home after surviving the wild finish of Game 2.
Aldridge and his Spurs teammates will try to regain the lead in the series when they meet the Thunder on Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Oklahoma City tied the best-of-seven matchup, 1-1, stealing home court advantage in the process.
The Spurs must win at least once in Oklahoma City if they are to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the 14th time in franchise history. (They also went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1979, their third, and final, season in the East after joining the NBA as part of the 1976 ABA-NBA merger.)
“Everyone on this team understands to win a championship, you have to win on the road,” said six-time All-Star point guard Tony Parker. “That’s our job now.”
Waiters’ assertion about the frailty of a one-man team is valid enough, though Aldridge’s 38 points in Game 1 lit the fuse for the Spurs’ offensive explosion in their 32-point beatdown win. Plus, his 41 points in Game 2 were nearly enough to pull out victory. But the Spurs know team basketball and spent much of the three-day break between games pondering the reasons they had to rely so heavily on Aldridge’s output in Monday’s loss.
The answers were easy to discern: Aldridge has been on fire at the offensive end and his teammates simply missed too many easy shots, including seven layups in the first quarter.
All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard missed 11 of his 18 shots in the game and Waiters’ role in limiting him in the fourth quarter was as impactful as it was shocking.
Leonard denied having been shut down by either Waiters or Andre Roberson, who defended him through most of the first three periods.
“I still got to my spots,” Leonard said. “They’re doing a great job of just playing and having energy. I feel like I missed shots early. Just got to be ready for Game 3.”
The Spurs admit there is a fine line between relying on Aldridge’s scoring and asking him to carry too much of the load. He accounted for 31 percent of the point production in Game 1. That figure jumped to 42 percent in Game 2.
The outcomes of the two games seem to define the plus and minus sides of the fine line.
“You always have that discussion, because then the other guys are not in rhythm,” said six-time All-Star point guard Tony Parker, who missed 6-of-9 shots in Game 2. “But hey, LaMarcus has been playing unbelievable. If he keeps playing like that, it’s our job, even if we get three shots, four shots, we have to make them.”
Parker admits it has been hard for a former volume shooter to adjust to limited scoring opportunities. He recognizes Aldridge’s emergence as a remarkably efficient post scorer demands it.
“That’s a tough life,” he said. “For me, I used to get 15 or 20 shots so I got time to get a rhythm. When you get four shots, you have to make them. That’s my job now. That’s my life now. I have to make those shots. I know I’m going to get three or four and then I’m not going to see it again for 10 minutes. It’s like that. I’m just going to have to make them.”
It is a return to an offensive role to which Parker is familiar.
“We used to pass the ball to Timmy (Duncan) all the time,” he said. “My first two or three years, I was in the corner looking at Timmy play all the time. It’s the same thing. LaMarcus has been playing unbelievable. The other guys have to do our best job to follow.”
Gregg Popovich identified the primary problems his players encountered in the Game 2 loss. None involved mistakes made by the referees during the final 13.5 seconds, when an official NBA report cited five violations (three by the Spurs; two by the Thunder) that were not called by the referees.
“It had nothing to do with winning or losing,” the Spurs coach said of the errors admitted by the league. “We lost the game. The disappointing part for us was the beginning of the game, when (the Thunder) got a lot of transition and jumped out to the 10-point lead. They did a good job with their aggressiveness. We also missed seven layups in the first quarter, and it kind of fueled that transition. So it was a tough start.
“I love the fact that the guys hung in the entire game, came back from that, a couple of 9-point leads. So they never stopped playing, which is great. But down the stretch is where we lost the game because of our decision making and shot selection at the end of the game. That’s why we lost the game. It had nothing to do with the officials.”
The adjustments the Spurs must make in Game 3 involve execution of Popovich’s game plan.
“We know what we did wrong; what we need to do; what we need to fix,” said Danny Green, whose steal from Thunder star Kevin Durant gave the Spurs their chance to pull out a win on Monday. “Hopefully, we make the proper adjustments next game and, hopefully, the adjustment we do make works and gives us an advantage.”
Nobody doubts the Spurs will have an extra portion of motivation after the Game 2 loss, least of all the Thunder.
“They know exactly what to do, how to play,” said OKC’s Kevin Durant, the 2012 NBA MVP and four-time scoring champ. “We’ve got to be prepared for them to hit us early and we’ve got to hit them first. We’ve got to keep taking those punches and keep rolling.”
*Top Image: Spurs guard Tony Parker talks with Spurs Forward LaMarcus Aldridge during practice on April 27, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.