HOUSTON – The questions that surrounded LaMarcus Aldridge in these playoffs weren’t reserved for the airwaves or the social media stratosphere.
Even within the walls of the San Antonio Spurs’ hallowed home, where they’d celebrated so back in the summer of 2015 when they added the master of the midrange in free agency to pair with franchise centerpiece Kawhi Leonard, they wondered when he’d look like himself again. The knee soreness that the 31-year-old is known to have been battling was hardly ideal in terms of timing, but it didn’t change this harsh reality: With the Spurs losing point guard Tony Parker for the season on Wednesday, Aldridge was on the verge of becoming the goat of these games.
The renaissance finally came on Friday night, as Aldridge had 26 points and seven rebounds in the Spurs’ 103-92 win over the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series at the Toyota Center. San Antonio, which also received a 26-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist outing from the unrelenting Leonard, took the 2-1 series lead with Game 4 in Houston on Sunday.
“This was (Aldridge’s) best game (of the series), obviously,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He felt good tonight. He was loose as far as his physical nature, his legs and everything. He wasn’t too stiff, and it showed. … In addition to busting his butt on D and trying to hit the boards for us, he was a big help tonight.”
The Spurs had lost their four-time champion point guard for the season just two days before, when Parker ruptured a tendon in his left quadriceps in the fourth quarter of San Antonio’s Game 2 win. No Parker meant rookie Dejounte Murray was given the start by Popovich, and that veteran backup Patty Mills (15 points in 30 minutes) would have to chip in even more than normal. But more than that, it meant anyone and everyone in a silver and black jersey that had been underperforming would need to get it together before it was too late.
Enter Aldridge. After scoring just four points in a Game 1 loss and 15 in Game 2, he had his best offensive game yet in these playoffs while serving as a vital rim protector on the other end (four blocks).
“(After Games 1 and 2) I saw that I needed to do more and tonight I tried to do that,” Aldridge said. “I tried to be more aggressive and make things happen. I know without (Parker) I have to be even better. So I was trying to make things happen tonight.”
The Rockets, who were led by James Harden (43 points, five assists), struggled to find a rhythm all night. They shot just 36.4% overall, with guards Patrick Beverley and Eric Gordon missing 17 of their 23 shots combined.
When Popovich said on his TNT in-game interview after the first quarter that he was “watching the worst offense I’ve ever seen in my life,” he could’ve been talking about either team. The Parker-less Spurs may have led 43-39 at halftime, but they shot just 40% from the field and missed 10-of-11 three-pointers. The Rockets were even worse, shooting 29.5% in the first half while staying close largely because of Trevor Ariza’s shooting (five-of-nine on three-pointers).
San Antonio struggled to initiate offense, with Murray hounded from the start by Beverley and Leonard missing eight of his first 12 shots. But the Rockets, whose threes-and-layups strategy has worked so well all season long, found themselves in quite the quandary. On the perimeter, where Leonard swarmed Harden just as he had in Game 2 (four-of-12 in the first half), the one-of-a-kind engine of the Rockets’ offense was stalling. On the inside, where Popovich swapped David Lee for Pau Gasol at center in Game 2 and stuck with him alongside Aldridge as a way to put a lid on the rim, the Rockets were routinely struggling to finish.
Harden finally heated up midway through the third quarter, sparking a 14-6 run that cut the Spurs’ nine-point lead to one. He found Capela with a lob pass in the lane for a dunk, then answered a thunderous Leonard dunk in traffic with one of his own over Gasol. Then a three-pointer from the left wing. Another from the right corner. A gritty putback in the paint. A driving layup on the left.
Harden was back, at least for a short and impactful stretch. But when he slipped up, when his Rockets stumbled, the Spurs kept coming.
“We had several opportunities,” Harden said. “As a unit, we couldn’t get it going consistently.”
A bad Harden pass was picked off by Mills, who buried a three-pointer to put San Antonio up 63-57. Mills struck again on the next possession, drawing a foul from Lou Williams beyond the arc and hitting three free throws that put the lead back to nine. Every time the Rockets crawled back in, the Spurs – who led 72-66 entering the fourth after Jonathon Simmons’ buzzer-beating three-pointer – willed them back out.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick