SAN ANTONIO — It took only a few seconds for San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker to recognize the holiday gift the Chicago Bulls were hand-delivering to power forward LaMarcus Aldridge in the first quarter of Sunday's ABC game at AT&T Center.
When Aldridge stopped just left of the top of the key on San Antonio's very first possession of the Christmas Day game, Chicago defender Robin Lopez stayed in the paint, leaving him unguarded.
Parker's eyes widened like those of a kid finding a favorite toy inside a package on Christmas morning. He delivered a quick pass that Aldridge caught and immediately launched, a perfect 21-foot jumper.
A special day had begun for Aldridge—one that seemed like the latest point on an upward trend line for the most prominent (and expensive) free-agent signee in San Antonio history.
It took until 2:17 remained in the first half—and 10 more perfect shots—before he missed. By the time the Spurs put the finishing touches on a 119-100 win, Aldridge had 33 points and nine rebounds, dominating a game in which Kawhi Leonard—the Spurs' All-NBA first-team small forward—also scored 25 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and had three steals.
But Aldridge's transition to the Spurs after nine standout seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers has not always been a smooth trajectory. He was the primary scorer in Portland through most of his time there, leading in points each of his final five seasons.
Spurs guard Patty Mills saw peak Aldridge when he spent part of the 2009-10 season and all of the 2010-11 campaign in Portland as Aldridge's teammate.
"Earlier on in my career, I was like, 'That's what it takes to be an All-Star,'" Mills said.
But Aldridge initially struggled to find that sort of comfort zone on a Spurs dynasty with well-established stars already in place. After averaging 20.0 or more points per game during each of his last five seasons in Portland, he notched only 18.0 points in 2015-16. His usage rate dipped to 25.9 percent, down from 30.2 percent during his final Blazers season.
Yet, despite plenty of bumps along the way, teammates have been telling him to keep being the guy he's always been.
"I tell him every day: He needs to score more; he needs to shoot the ball more," said Parker, who assisted on four of Aldridge's first five shots Sunday.
"When he plays like he did (against the Bulls), it makes everybody's job easier. It puts so much pressure on any defense. We need him to play like that. Kawhi is going to do his thing, but LaMarcus needs to be another force."
Aldridge shrugged off his monster game as a result of how the Bulls chose to defend him.
"They had a different scheme than I've seen in a while," he said after making 15-of-20 shots, only six of them inside 18 feet. "So, I was open. I was taking the shot. Once you hit two or three, the basket just seems big. It just happened."
What happened reminded fans everywhere why Aldridge is a member of an NBA club that has only four members: Cleveland Cavaliers four-time Most Valuable Player LeBron James, Golden State Warriors two-time MVP Steph Curry, Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul and Aldridge are the only players who have earned All-NBA honors—first, second or third team—each of the past three seasons.
But getting to Sunday took time. More than an entire season's worth of feeling out, in fact.
Aldridge deferred to Tim Duncan last season, aware the great Spurs big man's shots per game were slipping below 10 per night for the first time in his 19 seasons. (Duncan averaged only 7.2 shots). And this was in the midst of Leonard's ascension to being the team's two-way alpha.
Fading into the background was not only easy enough under such circumstances, it seemed entirely logical.
Not until the final 27 games of the season did Aldridge truly get comfortable taking more shots than most of his teammates. It hardly was a coincidence that his comfort level increased following San Antonio's annual rodeo road trip, a lengthy February journey Gregg Popovich uses to glue together the disparate pieces of each Spurs team.
Aldridge scored 22 or more points in 12-of-19 contests after the trip, averaging 21.3 points per game on 15.5 shots. Then, his first playoff run with San Antonio produced his highest point totals of the season. During Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he totaled 38 and 41 points.
He averaged 20.3 shots and 26.8 points per game in the six-game series and seemed to be fully entrenched as the Spurs' scoring star while Leonard helmed the other end.
Except then so much changed all over again.
Anyone expecting Aldridge's comfort zone to extend into his second season underestimated the jarring effects of the offseason roster revamp that followed Duncan's retirement. The Spurs have rarely retooled to that extent during the Popovich era, but Aldridge was right in the middle of it, now having to be a part of the continuity he himself was still grasping for.
Still intent on fitting in, Aldridge has had to rethink his role with 7-foot center Pau Gasol—one of seven first-time Spurs who have played this season—plugged alongside him in Duncan's old spot.
"We've got Pau in the starting lineup and we're still trying to bring him along and (trying) to get chemistry with guys," Aldridge said. "It's a process. I think guys are getting better every night."
Gasol is getting more shots (10.0 per game) than Duncan did last season and is scoring more (12.3 points per game). He also understands how much better off the Spurs are when Aldridge aggressively looks for his offense.
"When a player gets off like LaMarcus did (on Sunday), it opens things up and it creates an impact right away on the game," Gasol said. "They didn't seem to change the coverage on him. They just allowed him to take those rhythm shots, and pretty open, too. We just kept going at it and he kept making them.
"Happy to see that. It doesn't happen every game, but great for LaMarcus and great for us."
Aldridge also has had to adapt to Leonard's continuing emergence, this time as one of the NBA's top-11 scorers. The Defensive Player of the Year is now averaging 24.4 points on an average of 16.9 shots per game.
Until Aldridge's breakout night against the Bulls, Leonard owned all of the Spurs' 10 highest-scoring games this season, topping 30 points eight times. But Aldridge followed his Christmas Day performance with a 10-for-12, 27-point gem in a win over the Phoenix Suns, and now has one of those top-10 outputs, plus No. 11.
And yet, this isn't about records or who's No. 1. versus No. 2 in the offensive hierarchy. It's about doing what you do.
All of the Spurs, Leonard included, want to see Aldridge fire away more often, no matter if it flies in the face of the good-to-great shot mentality that served them so well over the previous four seasons—the one that produced 242 regular-season wins and back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals in 2013 and 2014.
"If he's making every shot and the offense of the other team is missing, it gives you the advantage of winning the game," Leonard said in perhaps the most Kawhi-esque quote ever uttered.
Parker understands Aldridge's reluctance to be more assertive.
"It's the mentality of the Spurs—everybody is unselfish," the team's longest-tenured player said. "We just have to remind him sometimes, 'You know you can score and we need you to do that.' His first year, he gave too much respect for the veterans. It's his team, too, and he needs to take over and he needs to be more aggressive. I think he's going to do it. It takes time. He'll be OK."
Aldridge need not fret about angering Popovich, either. Count the Spurs coach among those who want to see him get more engaged at the offensive end. He believes his No. 2 scorer continues to defer a bit, but is learning there are times it is OK to be a little greedy.
"We're always happy when he catches and shoots and doesn't think too much about if he's open at all," Popovich said. "I try not to use the word selfish. But, (I'd like him) to be more aggressive. If he's open, we want him to shoot. We don't want him to hesitate, don't want him to rocker step or anything, just shoot. I don't care if he shoots 27 times."
Popovich's encouragement is understandable after Aldridge's unreal 25-for-32 shooting in the Spurs' last two games.
"When I start overthinking, that's when I don't shoot the ball," Aldridge said. "So, I just try to stay in the moment and the last two games, I've been good."
The problem for Aldridge remains that over-earnest desire to be Spurs-like, always looking for the great shot when he already has a good one. But this a different Spurs outfit, and he has to be different too.
"Pop's very picky on what's a good shot at times," Aldridge said. "Of course, I have a little leeway. But it's tough for me because I always feel like I'm open, even when a guy's guarding me. So, I'm trying to not be myself as much to take less tough shots; try to make seeing some good-to-great. I'm getting better at it."
The Spurs are counting on it.