After Scary Diagnosis, San Antonio Spurs See an Inspired LaMarcus Aldridge

Mike Monroe@@Monroe_SAFeatured ColumnistMarch 29, 2017

San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) drives against New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 25, 2017, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
Darren Abate/Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO — Over the course of his 11-year NBA career, All-NBA power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has lost playing time to sprained thumbs, sprained ankles, sprained feet, a torn right hip labrum and a strained left groin. These are relatively common injuries that most players regard as hazards of the profession.

However, the diagnosis Aldridge received from the Spurs medical staff on March 11a minor heart arrhythmiawas far from common.

During Aldridge's rookie campaign in 2006-07, he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a heart condition that caused him to miss the final nine games that year and the first two months of the 2011-12 season. However, the Spurs have stressed that the 31-year-old's recent diagnosis was unrelated to his prior problems.

"It's always alarming or uncomfortable to hear that," said Aldridge. "That's what makes you go. That's what makes you tick. Of course it was a scary moment, for sure. But things worked out well, and I'm back doing what I love and having fun."

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 27:  LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts during a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on January 27, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

How much fun?

Since returning to the Spurs lineup on March 15, Aldridge has played some of his best basketball of the season. In the past seven games, he has averaged 20.0 points per contest on 46.6 percent shooting, and he's gone 4-for-8 from three-point range. He scored 12 of his 14 points in the second quarter of San Antonio's 103-74 humiliation of the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night at the AT&T Center, sparking a 36-22 surge that broke open the game.

This is the sort of production the Spurs anticipated when they signed Aldridge to a four-year, $84 million contract in July 2015. It's a relief for fans worried about his scoring average having fallen from 18.0 points per game last season to 17.3 before his recent surge pushed it back to 17.6.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 27:  LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs handles the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 27, 2017 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download
Noah Graham/Getty Images

The timing could not be better for San Antonio, whose Wednesday game against the Golden State Warriors will either extend the Spurs' quest for No. 1 seed in the Western Conference or effectively end it.

Lately, Aldridge has taken a significant portion of the scoring load from MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard, who has been dealing with aggressive double-teams as the playoffs approach.

Point guard Tony Parker understands the importance of having reliable options as opponents try to minimize Leonard's touches. The Memphis Grizzlies aggressively doubled Leonard in two recent games over a six-day span, holding him to 41 points on 30 shots across both contests. Parker, now much more a facilitator than scorer, looked more often for Aldridge, who produced 44 points on 34 shots.

"You have to see what's open," Parker said after the Spurs beat the Grizzlies, 97-90, on March 23. "They went pretty hard at Kawhi. Everybody else had to be more aggressive. Maybe it is [how teams will defend us in the playoffs], so we have to make shots and make them change strategy and come back to one-on-one defense. And then Kawhi can take advantage again.

"I feel like [LaMarcus] is in a good rhythm. I feel like he is playing very well. Hopefully he can stay like that. We're going to need him."

SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 27:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs is congratulated by LaMarcus Aldridge #12 after Leonard scored a basket against the Sacramento Kings during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game at Golden 1 Center on October
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Leonard isn't the only Spur who benefits from Aldridge's renewed post presence.

"LaMarcus is good for everybody," said 39-year-old Spurs guard Manu Ginobili. "The defense has to adjust, too; can't shift off him at all. And he makes us all better. It's great when you can have these easy points any way possible, and his jumpers and Kawhi's plays give us that."

The most striking difference in Aldridge's game since his return from the heart scare: a more assertive attitude.

"More aggressive," Aldridge said. "Just trying to make things happen. I think the team needs me to be aggressive, making things happen. It's just going that way lately, and I'm going to embrace it and keep playing.

"I'm just playing confident, being myself more out there. I'm not overthinking; just taking my shots and living with whatever happens."

Living being the operative word.

Parker, the most veteran of San Antonio's players, believes he knows why Aldridge has hit his stride as of late.

"It's not like he hurt his ankle or his thigh," Parker said. "When you talk about [the] heart, it's not the same thing. Maybe it put his life in perspective and he's playing with less pressure. Since he got back, he's been playing in a good rhythm."

Apprised of Parker's theory, Aldridge let forth a hearty laugh.

"Wow," he said. "I don't want to take it there. I don't want to blow it up. I'm just playing confident. I'm back on the court and doing what I love to do, and I think it's just that time to turn it up and be more dominant. That's what I'm trying to do right now."

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Aldridge may not want to attribute his post-scare surge to a free-and-easy outlook on basketball (and life) that came with his clearance to return to the court. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Channing Frye, however, has no doubt Aldridge is playing with a renewed joy.

Frye knows about heart scares. He missed the entire 2012-13 season because a routine preseason exam revealed an enlarged heart that threatened his career.

Upon learning he could return to the court, Frye felt a profound feeling of joy and release.

"Did you ever stay down underneath the water for a long time, and then you get that good cold, crisp breath of fresh air?" Frye said after playing nearly 22 minutes in Monday's blowout loss that dropped the Cavaliers out of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. "When a doctor tells you you're never going to be able to do what you love or what you feel like you're supposed to be on this Earth for, and then all of a sudden you beat that, well, you feel like you could beat anything. You appreciate things more.

"It makes it way more fun to play, no matter what. We played a crappy game tonight, and I still appreciate just the opportunity to come out here and hoop with my boys, and [I] get excited about having the opportunity to do it again tomorrow. It's literally that simple. ... I know LaMarcus has been battling this thing for a while, and I'm glad to see him out there."

So are the Spurs and their fans, who understand San Antonio isn't going deep into the playoffs unless Aldridge is playing inspired, confident basketball.

"He's going out there with a clear head and playing with instincts," said Spurs guard Patty Mills of Aldridge's recent play. "When he plays like that, he's an unbelievable player to stop, and obviously an unbelievable player to have on your team."

 All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference. 

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