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OKLAHOMA CITY — Isolation basketball usually comes at the expense of efficiency. Unless, it seems, you’re LaMarcus Aldridge, who has so thoroughly dominated his individual matchups against the Thunder that he appears to have shaken basketball’s empirical truths. Through two games in this series, Aldridge has averaged 39.5 points while shooting 75% from the field. Many of his attempts are, in theory, somewhat difficult: contested turnarounds, hooks through contact, off-balance push shots. No matter. Aldridge has taken this series to the point that he’s made Serge Ibaka—a truly fine defender—into an easy mark.
Never have we seen Ibaka so hopeless. The wide base he takes is supposed to help him maintain his footing. The vertical stance he assumes should allow him to contest shots without fouling. Yet Ibaka has been made to relive the same lost-cause defensive possession over and over again. His face has often betrayed an understanding of his predicament; in a league ruled by confidence (and feigned confidence), Ibaka’s reactions carry tacit acknowledgement of the number Aldridge has done on him.
There’s only so much the Thunder can do. Aldridge has become the Spurs’ default when their larger offense misfires—an inevitability for teams that rely heavily on off-ball movement and timely passing. If Oklahoma City were to dedicate too much attention to Aldridge, it would run the risk of enabling the very kind of pass-happy offense it worked so hard to foil in Game 2. Few teams are better than San Antonio when it comes to quickly flipping a clear scoring opportunity into an even better one.
“I think any time you’re getting in those situations, Aldridge is such a good isolation player,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said. “And obviously they have terrific guys that have been in their system for a long period of time, so there’s always that balance that I think Pop’s striking and he’s really striking it well.”
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For the Thunder to willfully put their defense into rotation by double-teaming would require the utmost confidence in a team-wide ability to recover and contain. That style of defense is a constant stress test. We’ve seen the Thunder move to double on occasion—including a critical Game 2 possession in which Steven Adams timed his rotation perfectly to force an Aldridge to pass out of the post—but largely abstain from the practice:
Considering the personnel involved, doubling on any more consistent basis would be an exercise in diminishing returns. A random, unpredictable double-team might be enough in some cases to throw Aldridge off balance. Presenting him with the same kind of pressure repeatedly would give the Spurs all the opportunity they need to feel out where the help is coming from and how to exploit it.
“I just think they are picking their spots when they do it,” Aldridge said.
As a result, the Spurs have had Aldridge post up more than any other player in these playoffs, according to Synergy Sports. San Antonio has options and reason to invest in scoring alternatives. Yet Gregg Popovich isn’t shy when it comes to posting Aldridge on possession after possession for minutes at a time, both as a means for funneling the offense through a dominant scorer and gauging the Thunder’s tendency for overreaction. On one particular second-quarter sequence in Game 2, Manu Ginobili looked to post Aldridge out of a set play but audibled out when it took too long to develop. Immediately after, Popovich called over to his longtime playmaker to rather delicately insist that he “run the f—ing play.”
San Antonio came up the floor and ran the exact same set to get Aldridge a look on the left block and would do so, again and again, throughout the game. Aldridge is shooting 75% from that particular spot on the floor in this series, according to NBA.com, which when applied to the considerable volume of Aldridge’s post-ups has generated enough points to float the Spurs’ offense in its less productive stretches.
It took time for the Spurs to evolve to this point, but they’ve gradually realized the vision that made Aldridge’s signing possible. The ball will find the the star forward for open jumpers and short drives when the offense whirs. When it stalls, it will still seek him out by San Antonio’s own blunt insistence. This is, in the isolation tradition, his most reliable value. Aldridge may well carry his matchup in a way that carries the whole series.