San Antonio Spurs are heading to the Western Conference finals for the 13th time thanks to a player who has never been there.
The Spurs eliminated the sluggish James Harden and Houston Rockets with a 114-75 victory in Game 6 on Thursday night behind a season-high 34 points from LaMarcus Aldridge in a game they played without All-Star Kawhi Leonard.
Aldridge, who is in his 11th season and second in San Antonio, had failed to get out of the second round in his previous six postseason trips. He added 12 rebounds in his second big game of the Western Conference semifinal series to pick up the scoring slack with Leonard out after rolling his ankle in San Antonio’s overtime victory in Game 5 on Tuesday night.
“He’s really turned it on,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “Demanded the ball, got in good position … he was wonderful on the boards and of course he passes it really, really well and gets it moving for us.”
Aldridge became the first Spur to score 34 points with 12 rebounds in a playoff game since Tim Duncan against Phoenix in 2008.
“I just touched it a little bit more tonight so I had a chance to figure it out,” Aldridge said. “I was trying to be more dominant down there. So I was willing to take some contested shots tonight and I got into my rhythm early and after that I was good to go.”
The Spurs were up by 19 by halftime in a game that was over quickly, and didn’t let up to reach the Western Conference finals for the first time since winning the title in 2014. The 4-2 series win sends them to conference finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Trevor Ariza led Houston with 20 points on a night when MVP hopeful Harden capped his stellar season by tying a season low with 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting before fouling out with 3:15 left.
A somber Harden was clear about who was to blame for the loss.
“Everything falls on my shoulders,” he said. “I take responsibility for it, both ends of the floor. It’s tough, especially the way we lost at home for Game 6. But it happened and we move forward.”
Houston coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t sure if the disappointment of losing a winnable Game 5 could have lingered with his team and contributed to this embarrassing blowout.
“It could, “he said. “I’ve been on both sides of this thing. Sometimes life hits you in the face. No matter what it was, we just didn’t have it tonight.”
Jonathon Simmons filled in nicely for Leonard, scoring 18 points and hounding the Rockets on defense.
San Antonio was up by 23 after the third quarter and scored the first seven points of the fourth to make it 94-64 and send many of the home fans streaming to the exits.
Already without veteran Tony Parker, who suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury in Game 2, the Spurs looked to be the underdog entering this one without Leonard’s scoring and defense.
Instead, things went wrong early for the Rockets with Aldridge scoring 10 points in the first quarter as San Antonio dashed out to a 31-24. Houston was already down 50-29 when Harden took his first shot midway through the second quarter. He made that 3-pointer to whittle the lead a bit, but it didn’t get the Rockets going.
The Spurs opened the third quarter with an 8-1 run, with six points from Aldridge, to extend their already big lead to 69-43 with about 9 1/2 minutes left.
The Rockets used a 7-2 spurt after that with 3-pointers from Ariza and Eric Gordon to cut the lead to 71-50 with about seven minutes remaining in the third.
A 3-pointer by Harden not long after that got Houston within 20, but San Antonio scored the next four points to make it 77-53 a couple of minutes later.
Houston, which relied on its 3-point shooting to get this far, couldn’t make shots from long-range going 13 of 40. But the Rockets also had trouble scoring in general, making just 28.6 percent (22 of 77) of their shots overall.