The Portland Trail Blazers beat a quality San Antonio Spurs team, 99-86, in the Rose Garden, and it would be fun to break this one down in minute detail right off the bat, but Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge left everyone present, except the Spurs but including himself, in a delighted shock bubble.
Simply put, Aldridge took a grueling season, the memories of a tough week, and a faltering-of-late All-Star campaign and he just put a bird on it. All of it.
Tonight was the rare Rose Garden evening from recent memory that will stand up for years as an "I was there when..." event that didn't involve a catastrophic injury, a night where the standing ovations were delivered spontaneously and without any lingering guilt. Aldridge just wiped that whole slate clean by wiping the court with Spurs, the team that currently holds the best record in the league.
I know I'm prone to hyperbole, and absolutely use the words "absolutely" and "ridiculous" a ridiculous number of times, but that was LaMarcus Aldridge's best game as an NBA player. Period. He was absolutely ridiculous. His two most prolific scoring games earlier this season came against the Minnesota Timberwolves and included some late-game stat-padding, so they take a 10% cut if you're feeling generous and get totally discounted if you're a stickler. His 35 and 10 against Dallas was monstrous, but it came in a losing effort. Anything prior to December 2010 isn't worth mentioning.
Tonight, the only nit to pick is that Matt Bonner didn't play, leaving San Antonio's frontline rotation a man down. And as far as nits go, that's a gnat-sized nit. No discounts apply here, Aldridge earned this one, every last penny. His 40 points, 11 boards, 2 assists, 3 steals and 1 block were just as you draw you up: nine trips to the line, 40 points on 23 attempts, hustle plays, smart plays, unstoppably athletic plays, vicious plays, shake-your-head-and-swear-slowly-and-loudly-fuuuuuuuuuuuuu type of plays. Efficient plays, dominant plays.
We've said for years that we wanted to see what Aldridge was capable of. We've brainstormed checklists of potential improvements every summer. We've questioned his mind, his heart, and his mentality. We've enjoyed the last few months and thought we'd seen him turn a page and step it up a level.
But we have never seen anything like this. Because he has never done anything like this, not against this level of competition, not with such a scrap heap roster around him, not with no outside shooting help to speak of, not without getting into his own head or making a silly play down the stretch. This was as good as he gets. A new ceiling.
Afterwards, Aldridge looked less like himself after his most recent career-high and much more like Brandon Roy on the day after his famous 52-point explosion against the Phoenix Suns. Stunned by his own accomplishment. Proud as hell. A little bit drunk off the adrenaline rush. A blissful sense of accomplishment you don't see often anywhere outside a locker room: a combination of exhaustion, excitement, euphoria and disbelief. "It's surreal," Aldridge said afterwards. "It doesn't feel real."
No "probably" about it. It was. And, I suspect, Aldridge knows that fact deeper and more intimately than anyone else, or he will once it fully sinks in.
And in case he needed some clarity about what he had just done, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, an arbiter of these things, stuck around to personally acknowledge the performance after the game.
"Pop shook my hand after," Aldridge said beaming. "I don't know what that means, but he's never shook my hand before. I'll take that as a good sign."
Respect earned; respect given.
Random Game Notes
- "I love tater tots. Had to go to the kids room to get 'em." -- Blazers GM Rich Cho, as quoted by Matt Calkins.
- Nicolas Batum admitted that he was experiencing some knee soreness but said he is able to continue playing going forward. He finished with eight points on eight shots, plus six rebounds, 35 minutes.
- Story of Portland's 2011 in one second-half possession: three bricked three-pointers followed by an Aldridge putback.
- Wesley Matthews addressed the media prior to the game in the Rose Garden's Courtside Club, where he took questions about making the Rookie / Sophomore game. Matthews wore his three goggles t-shirt and said he woke up from a nap this afternoon to a bunch of text messages informing him of the news. He also said he had no idea who was on his team with him but was honored to play with all of them. Here's a picture.
- Portland's latest big man, Chris Johnson, scored two points in his first four NBA minutes of action. You've always, always got to love the "Welcome to the NBA" interview. Here's Johnson's, who was all smiles, I mean ALL SMILES. "It's just surreal right now. I don't think it's hit me yet. I was kinda nervous out there. Trying not to make mistakes. I got into it, calmed down a little bit. The coaches just told me, 'Good job. Keep working like you're doing every single day.'"
- On January 22nd, Johnson's Dakota Wizards lost to the Rio Grande Vipers in the D-League. On February 1st, Johnson scored his first NBA points in a win over the San Antonio Spurs. That's crazy. Pinch him! He's dreaming. Johnson's current 10-day contract is up later this week. He told me tonight that he hasn't yet been notified whether he will receive a second 10-day but that he is travelling with the team tonight to Denver for the start of a three-game road trip. Given that the Blazers are undefeated in games that Johnson has played in, it seems like a no-brainer to extend him a second 10-day.
- The Sean Marks Highlight of the Night came post-game in the back hallway, where he caught up with former teammate Tim Duncan. Smiles all around.
- To appreciate greatness, take all of your feelings regarding Aldridge's performance tonight and imagine them spread out over an entire decade. That's greatness. And that's Duncan. We as a world aren't capable of showing him enough love. It's essentially impossible.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
You've got to like that
No question. I thought our guys really played a great game tonight. I thought in the first half, we did the things we needed to except rebound the ball. We were forcing San Antonio to miss but they were pounding us on the boards. In the second half we did a better job of rebounding the ball, not giving them second chance points. I think they had 20 second chance points at the half and only 3 in the second half. Only 3 offensive boards in the second half. So I thought defensively we were doing some good things, offensively we were able to stay close. In the fourth question, just execution. We needed to make plays and I thought our guys did that.
He played great. Establishing us once again down in the post. Tonight they mixed up their defense. When Blair got in foul trouble they had to change the way they defended him. We moved him out into some pick and rolls once Tim was guarding him. He did a good job of mixing up the post and bringing them out in pick-and-rolls. Deep post position, making good decisions down there as well as scoring.
Best game he has ever played?
He's been solid. He's just been solid. The last two games have been tough games for him. Those defenders -- Garnett and Perkins and Dalembert -- those guys who he's been going up against. He's been good. They had two nights against him. I thought tonight he got back to the paint, was sealing and getting deep post position.
34 points. San Antonio is the best team in the league right now and our defense was able to hold them to 34 points in the second half. I think we would have done a better job in the first half if we would have rebounded the ball. Blair was just a monster in the first half and I don't think he scored in the second half.
Defense: adjustments or effort?
We rebounded the ball. They were missing the first half, they were pounding us on the boards in the first half. 20 second chance points. 13 offensive boards. That's what gave them the lead and really controlled the first half. The second half, I thought Dante, LA, our guards, did a better job of coming in and picking it up.
Savor this one?
Hey, it's just like all other games. It's a good win for this team. They did things that we needed to do to win this game. Just as we do if we would have dropped it, we have got to get on the plane, there's another game tomorrow. Really, a good win for this team to beat the best team in the league. Those days off seemed like they helped our guys tonight.
You said you needed to turn it up against a good team and you did
We made the plays. I thought we started to win the hustle game in the second half. We had to out-work our opponents. We just have that make-up as far as our team right now. To go toe-to-toe with most teams, we can't do that. We've got to out-work you, be smarter, execute and if we do that and play hard we're going to give ourselves a chance to win. Tonight we beat the best team in the league. I thought tonight we played San Antonio, we weren't watching them as we did in the Boston game. It just shows that it can happen if you play the right way and you play hard and you play together.
Fourth quarter against elite teams
It was a constant reminders to play and make plays. I think I said that definitely every timeout, but we had to make plays, continue to make plays, score, we didn't want to slow the game down. Take advantage of the transition if you can get that. If not, run your offense. Big possession, Patty Mills is in transition, there's nothing there. As opposed to forcing it, he got us into an offense. We scored. Andre did a good job of controlling that tempo late in the ball game, those are things you've got to do.
It was execution and it was believing and making plays. The things that we haven't done consistently this year. Going down the stretch, understanding time/score situation. Not walking. Not playing to not lose, but playing to win. I thought we did that on both ends of the floor.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter