OAKLAND, Calif. — On second thought, Gregg Popovich decided to hold his tongue.
After railing for two days against the deteriorating state of American politics and Zaza Pachulia’s injurious Game 1 foot-slide, the normally loquacious San Antonio Spurs head coach wouldn’t stoop and, as he put it, “psychoanalyze” the dismal effort put forth in Game 2 by LaMarcus Aldridge.
With Kawhi Leonard sitting out Tuesday night's proceedings, the Spurs looked out of sorts and completely devoid of rhythm. That they lost to the Golden State Warriors without their MVP candidate and defensive stalwart was unsurprising.
That the Spurs lost by 36 and appeared overmatched in every phase of the game was the shocker, and Popovich refused to specifically point his finger at Aldridge, who finished with just eight points and four boards in nearly 27 uninspiring minutes.
To be clear, Popovich did first lay into Aldridge hard for what the coach perceived as timidity on the offensive end. “LaMarcus has to score for us. He can't be timid,” Popovich said. “He turned down shots in the first quarter. He can't do it. You've got to score. Scoring has to come from someplace. I think he's got a major responsibility in Game 3 to come out and get something done, whether it's for himself or teammates.”
But when pressed to explain the underlying causes for Aldridge’s play, Popovich demurred. “You want me to be a psychologist now?” he replied. “You want me to—no, I'll pass. I already talked about what I need from LaMarcus. I'm not going to psychoanalyze him. I don't think he deserves that.”
If we could psychoanalyze the coach here and not the player, Popovich’s point was clear. With Leonard out—or even with him back on the floor in Game 3 in some sort of diminished state—it’s incumbent upon Aldridge to be the aggressor, to be the main option for a Spurs team that actually had no problem getting shots up in Game 2.
Through three quarters, San Antonio had 10 more shot attempts (77-67) than the Warriors, thanks to an offensive rebounding edge of 17-3.
The Spurs simply could not convert on their chances, which is what left Popovich so dismayed after the game. There was no coherence to their offensive flow, which was anchored not by Aldridge, Patty Mills or Danny Green, all of whom failed to crack double-digits.
Only Jonathon Simmons, who poured in 22 points on 17 shots (yet still finished with a minus-21 point differential for the game), was a source of consistent, reliable scoring. All other Spurs of any import were no-shows, but Aldridge (who had a team-high 28 points in Game 1) was the most glaring letdown of that grouping.
The Warriors, of course, had a lot to do with Aldridge’s off-night, pressuring him with a constant mix of Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and David West. Even without the services of Andre Iguodala, Golden State was able to swarm Aldridge all evening and neutralize any opportunities he had to affect the game in San Antonio’s favor.
With Leonard out and Aldridge a baffling nonentity for most of the night, the Warriors feasted. Golden State scored more points in the paint (46-44). Despite their 18-of-37 (48.6 percent) shooting from three, the Warriors were even more efficient on two-point shots, swishing 32 of 52 such shots for a ridiculous 61.5 percent rate.
Aldridge could do nothing to stop the Warriors inside or out, although he did appear at one point to approach the latter in a controversial way, closing out hard under Durant’s footing after a three-point attempt late in the second quarter.
Def Pen Hoops @DefPenHoops
Here's LaMarcus Aldridge closing out on a Kevin Durant 3.... go crazy, everybody. https://t.co/w7TnHeGVDX2017-5-17 02:57:22
Durant didn’t derive anything nefarious from it. “He just plays the game the right way, so it wasn't anything more than that," he said. And though Aldridge wasn’t asked about it after the game, there’s no universe where he would’ve admitted to any ill intent, same as Pachulia after Game 1.
Just as it’s foolhardy to try to surmise motives from a slow-motion video review, it didn’t look great for Aldridge, who did admit that his approach to the game was severely lacking.
“I was just trying to … take advantage of them trying to take me out,” Aldridge said. “I think I kind of threw off the offensive rhythm not taking my shots, and I kind of got lost in the flow of just standing around. I’m always better when I take shots early, even if they’re tough shots. I was trying to stay away from taking tough shots tonight early because they were digging and they were in on me, but it wasn’t the right read tonight.
“I definitely won’t do it again.”
On the one hand, that analysis amounts to a very astute summation by Aldridge of where he went astray in Game 2. With the benefit of Popovich’s tutelage and three full days off between now and Game 3, there’s every chance Aldridge—again, with Leonard or without him—can rebound from this and get back to his Game 1 form that forced the Warriors to respect his play under the rim and in mid-range post-ups.
Conversely, there’s no possible way Aldridge—or the Spurs, generally speaking—can be any worse in Game 3 than they were at Oracle Arena on Tuesday night.
But for San Antonio to cling to any remaining hope of turning this series around, it will need an aggressive Aldridge who can produce, make his teammates around him more efficient and provide some defensive force against a Warriors offense that has gotten its groove back.
Erik Malinowski covers the Warriors for B/R. His book, Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History, will be published in October. Follow him on Twitter: @erikmal.