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Putting LaMarcus Aldridge's performance against the Warriors in perspective

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LaMarcus Aldridge had a big game against the Warriors on Saturday night, scoring 26 points and 13 rebounds in the Spurs' 87-79 win. But how much can we take away from that performance in terms of his impact on the matchup moving forward? In short, we didn't really learn much that's new.

Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Thompson of the Bay Area News Group summarized the Golden State Warriors' loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday best by framing his game story around Draymond Green's assessment of the damage.

if you want to know how the Warriors felt about another loss at The Alamo, leave it to Warriors forward Draymond Green for the pulse of the team. He was asked about Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who led the Spurs with 26 points and 13 rebounds, redeeming himself after getting shutdown by Green in the previous matchup.

"I think he had a better game than last game," forward Draymond Green said, "which shouldn’t have been hard."

There's actually another version of that quote that seems to be talking about the Spurs as a whole instead of LaMarcus Aldridge in particular — as tweeted by Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group — but either way, the point stands: this was a game that just about any reasonable person would have favored the Spurs to win, even if allowing some possibility that the Warriors might pull it off just because there seems to be an inevitability about their rapid ascendance toward history.

Or, as John Cannon of Crossover Chronicles put it in his reflection of the game, the Spurs really needed to win this game while the Warriors only needed to "...show that even without Iguodala, Bogut and Ezeli, on the second night of a back-to-back with a very difficult front end...they could play the Spurs within an inch of their lives... on the road."

The common thread between those points is that it's really difficult to say we learned much of anything sustainable about Saturday night's matchup given that three defensive role players were missing against one of the NBA's top offenses. That's especially true when trying to take much of anything away from LaMarcus Aldridge's performance against the Warriors last night — to discuss his 26 and 13 performance without noting the absence of some of the Warriors' top defenders is problematic.

That's not at all to negate the Aldridge's increasing comfort with the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard since the last time they faced the Warriors back on January 25, as described by ESPN's Michael C. Wright early last month, Paul Garcia of Project Spurs reported on last week and Sarah Cilea of BballBreakdown also explored in-depth last week. Nor do I want to negate the resultant fact that the Spurs got Aldridge a wider variety of looks this time around, as evidenced by the shot charts.

January 25 March 19

Aldridge shot chart on Jan 25

Aldridge shot chart on March 19

LaMarcus Aldridge's shot charts against the Warriors on January 25 and March 19.

But SI's Ben Golliver alluded to how the absence of the Warriors' defensive trio might have influenced Aldridge's performance.

After a poor performance in Golden State, Aldridge reasserted himself at home, scoring a game-high 26 points (on 11-of-25 shooting) and grabbing 13 rebounds. He teamed with Diaw and Leonard to decisively win the interior game, as San Antonio grabbed 14 offensive rebounds (to Golden State’s seven), scored 24 second-chance points (to Golden State’s 12), and extended multiple key possessions in the fourth quarter...If Golden State missed Iguodala on offense, it certainly missed Bogut’s length and size on defense. Barnes can defend many power forwards in small-ball looks, but Aldridge had a field day when they were switched onto each other.

Golliver went on to detail exactly how the Spurs exploited the smaller version of the Warriors, but that got me wondering about why things were so much different last time.

What very few people seemed to point out about the second meeting between the Spurs and Warriors is the role that Bogut, Ezeli and even Iguodala played in helping to defend Aldridge that first time around — while Green justifiably got the lion share of the credit for defending Aldridge, defense is a team effort and having those other three guys around Green made a huge difference in how the Warriors were able to defend Aldridge. Our own Justin Swinderman was one of the few who noted this in any detail and that made me want to go back to that January 25 game and actually look at who was defending Aldridge possession to possession.

So the table below lists every one of LaMarcus Aldridge's field goal attempts and turnovers from the January 25 game when he went 2-for-9 with three turnovers. There are other ways to look at defensive assignments, but this was an easily digestible way to demonstrate the range of options available to the Warriors the first time around.

Time

Defender

Result

Rebound

Comment

Q1, 11:45

D. Green

3pa

Curry

First shot after opening tip

Q1, 5:56

A. Bogut

Live turnover

Bogut switched with Green onto LA, LA catch at wing, lost ball dribbling into paint

Q1, 4:38

D. Green

FGA, long 2

Curry (Ezeli tip)

Ezeli guarding Diaw

Q1, 3:13

D. Green

FGA, jumphook

Ezeli

Ezeli guarding Diaw

Q2, 5:37

D. Green

FGM, Dunk

Green left to help, open dunk

Q2, 4:25

M. Speights

FGA, long 2

Loose

Q2, 3:48

D. Green

FGA, jumphook

Speights

Q2, 0:49

A. Iguodala

FGA, layup

Iguodala

Switched with Green out of P&R, contested shot, got dreb

Q3, 11:22

A. Bogut

FGM, fadeaway J

Multiple switches

Q3, 10:12

D. Green

FGA, short j

Bogut

Bogut guarding West

Q3, 8:30

K. Thompson

Dead turnover

Thompson switched onto LA out of P&R, 3sec violation while Bogut guarded West

Q3, 5:24

D. Green

Dead turnover

Green guarding LA at FT line, Bogut playing "goalie"/guarding Diaw

How the Warriors defended LaMarcus Aldridge on January 25.

First, bear in mind that this is an incomplete picture of what happened — obviously this is a snapshot of Aldridge's 25 minutes on January 25th that doesn't necessarily represent who guarded him most often. But this data does give a sense of who was responsible for his makes and misses, to match what many are talking about today. By extension, it demonstrates that the Warriors were willing to rotate multiple defenders on Aldridge throughout the game.

Second, note that Harrison Barnes was not involved in guarding Aldridge in any defensive possession in which Aldridge recorded a field goal attempt or turnover — so the Warriors didn't have to endure that mismatch at all. But third, also note that Bogut was guarding Aldridge at times as well, whether due to switch or taking the assignment (and for what it's worth, Ezeli had him on a few possessions that weren't listed here too). So if nothing else, we can say that the Warriors simply had more options for guarding Aldridge.

Yet the most important element of how the Warriors defended Aldridge the first time around is how Bogut, Ezeli, and Iguodala functioned as help defenders. You'll note that Iguodala successfully smothered Aldridge into a miss after a switch out a pick and roll situation, but also that Bogut or Ezeli were involved in helping off the ball in half of those situations — in particular, they were often responsible for Boris Diaw and/or boxing out to control the boards, luxuries the Warriors simply didn't have last night.

Before noting that the Spurs slowed the pace and simply played a different game, the fact of the matter is the very presence of Bogut or Ezeli on the court took away that other big as an option when Aldridge had the ball and allowed the Warriors to prevent him from establishing post position off the ball. Throw in Iguodala as another disruptive defender with the awareness to switch and contest effectively, and the Warriors become a very different defensive unit against the Spurs with those three around.

Now does any of this mean that the Warriors will just blow the Spurs out again if all three of their missing players are available the next time they play? Likely not. But it's also clear that having those three simply gives the Warriors additional options for defending Aldridge and allows Green to switch and cause havoc more freely while others help out and limit his scoring opportunities.

Aldridge is certainly getting more comfortable with the Spurs and that will absolutely change this matchup in some way and as Golliver wrote in his aforementioned article, "​It's hard to imagine the winner of the Aldridge/Green matchup will ultimately lose a seven-game series." The Spurs also did a great job at stifling Curry and the Warriors' offense, something that Aldridge might not be getting enough credit for today or in general, as described well by Matthew Tynan of 48 Minutes of Hell.

For all the criticism Aldridge gets on the defensive end, he offers something the Spurs haven’t had in a long time. He’s known as an offensive player, but his ability to extend to the 3-point line defensively and make players shoot over his nearly seven-foot frame — and he closes out very well, forcing guys to have to drive into the teeth of the defense — gives San Antonio an additional luxury against the Warriors. They want to shoot. They want to exploit mismatches in the front court with Draymond Green at the power forward and center position. Aldridge, who, again, is widely criticized in this capacity, makes that difficult. He’s a much better defender than most people want to acknowledge.

And, oh by the way, the Spurs are also just a very good team, which is evident by just about any metric we can imagine — it's quite clear that the Spurs are capable of challenging the Warriors in a seven game series.

But the notion that the Spurs have laid out the blueprint for beating the Warriors or, even worse, laid out a blueprint for how other teams could win based on Saturday's loss is a bit of a leap given who the Warriors could potentially put on the floor during a hypothetical playoffs series and what we know about the meaning of their absence.