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Paging LaMarcus: Ailing Spurs need Aldridge to take charge

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In the summer of 2015, the San Antonio Spurs went shopping like they never have before.

Long content to spend big money on their core while using free agency to sprinkle role players around them, the Spurs lavished a max contract on LaMarcus Aldridge, a four-time All-Star from Portland who would join Kawhi Leonard as one of the focal points of the franchise after Tim Duncan retired.

Now with Leonard ailing and San Antonio facing mighty Golden State in the Western Conference finals, the Spurs need Aldridge to take control.

“LaMarcus has to score for us,” coach Gregg Popovich said after the 136-100 wipeout in Game 2 that put the Warriors up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. “He can’t be timid. He turned down shots in the first quarter. He can’t do it. You’ve got to score.”

Aldridge had just eight points on 4-for-11 shooting in Game 2 as he was swarmed all night by a Warriors defense that was free to double- and sometimes triple-team him since it didn’t have to worry about Leonard, who missed the game with an ankle injury. Aldridge was 0 for 2 with two turnovers in the first quarter and knows he has to be more aggressive when the two teams meet for Game 3 in San Antonio on Saturday.

“The ball has to move, but I have to take a shot if it’s there,” Aldridge said Thursday. “I was trying to make the extra pass, but I have to score, too. If I’m open, I have to shoot.”

The Spurs signed him to a four-year, $80 million deal to take some of the scoring burden off of aging stars Duncan, who retired last summer, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

“Timmy’s last couple years, he couldn’t score nearly like he used to and Manu’s getting older and Tony’s getting older,” Popovich told the AP in March. “Luckily we had Kawhi who was going through the roof. But there’s got to be an inside threat, somebody else that can score for you. So LaMarcus was a huge opportunity for us to try to convince him to come.”

Aldridge was everything they needed in the clincher over Houston in the conference semifinals. While Leonard sat out with the ankle injury, Aldridge scored 34 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to help the Spurs to a stunning 39-point victory.

Aldridge brought it in Game 1 against the Warriors as well, scoring 28 points in a two-point defeat. Leonard went down just over halfway through that game and his status for Game 3 remains undecided. But Golden State blitzed Aldridge from all angles in Game 2 and the Spurs are scrambling to find their identity with both Leonard and Parker out with injuries.

Since Leonard’s ankle rolled on Zaza Pachulia‘s foot while taking a jump shot in Game 1, Aldridge has turned the ball over eight times and made only seven shots against Golden State’s swarming defense.

“They’ve been throwing different things at us, throwing different things at LaMarcus,” guard Danny Green said. “Obviously, thinking a little bit. It’s a lot easier to do that when we don’t have everybody that we need to make plays so they can trap a little more on those guys.

“But offensively, I think it’s a combination of them playing good defense and also us not finding our chemistry, not finding our rhythm, and not knowing where to be with two of our main playmakers not there.”

The key, Aldridge said, was finding a balance between being assertive and looking to score while also making sure that he keeps his teammates involved and hits them with passes when they’re open on the perimeter.

“It was definitely something different than I’ve seen here, but you’ve got to play through it,” Aldridge said of the increased attention from the Warriors. “I either take my shot or try to find the open guy. I think the last game it definitely worked in their advantage with me getting passive, but next game I won’t do that.”

For San Antonio, there is no time to lose. Popovich made that abundantly clear in his pointed remarks after Game 2 when he lamented the team’s lack of intensity and belief.

It all starts with a team’s star players, and Aldridge is the biggest one still standing for the ailing Spurs.

“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,” Popovich said. “They come after him, to find somebody, turn it over, take good shots. He’s got to do it. No doubt about it.”

AP freelance writer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.

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Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle — providing more quality wing play and good decision making — and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart — an All-Defensive Team player — had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that — and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late — to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.

Boston’s Gordon Hayward warming up, available to play in Game 3

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The Celtics are getting their X-factor back — Gordon Hayward is available for the must-win Game 3 for Boston.

This had been expected, but he was out warming up pregame as reports he would be available started to bounce around the web.

Even 20 minutes of Hayward would be a big boost for the Celtics. Hayward suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He’s been out ever since, even leaving the bubble for a while to get treatment.

Hayward’s return gives the Celtics another versatile player who can create his own shot and knock down the open looks others create for him. Hayward can run pick-and-rolls with the second unit while Tatum and Walker get rest. He’s the Celtics’ fourth-best scoring option right now, but he’s more dangerous than any other team’s fourth scorer.

Miami leads the series 0-2. If Boston doesn’t find a way to break down Miami’s zone defense and defend the rim better themselves this series is going to be short. Maybe Hayward can help with that on Saturday night.

Ty Lawson dropped by team, reportedly banned from Chinese league after social media posts

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Ty Lawson’s off the court challenges were among the reasons he was playing in China and not the NBA this season. He signed for good money in China instead.

That era of his career after some social media posts, apparently of him at a strip club in China, has him dropped by his team and rumored to be banned from the league.

Lawson’s team, the Fujian Sturgeons, apparently gave this statement to Chinese news agency Xinhua:

“His inappropriate words are inconsistent with the social responsibilities and values abided by our club and have brought serious adverse social impacts to the club and the league. We will not sign him for the new season.”

Emiliano Carchia, the CEO of Sportando, reports that Lawson is out of the Chinese Basketball Association for good.

Lawson’s quickness and ability to create space and score could help some NBA teams, but incidents like this make it less likely an NBA team would roll the dice on the 32-year-old point guard. Lawson spent eight seasons in the NBA then the last two in China.