The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Denver Nuggets, 110-105, at the Moda Center on Thursday night, improving their record to 32-11.
There is a television show called "The Following" that I do not recommend for children. The only word to describe it is "diabolical," as it really is the small screen version of a living hell. The hell-master is serial killer/cult leader Joe Carroll, who crafts a get-out-of-jail scheme specifically designed to emotionally destroy, physically torture and emasculate former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, then man who captured him. Hardy has a heart problem, so Carroll finds horrible ways to mess with his pacemaker. Hardy has a love interest, so Carroll sics his brainwashed acolytes on her and her child, taking both hostage at various points. The man-on-man pain just ratchets up episode after episode, as Hardy is drawn back into the chase to capture Carroll again. There should be a warning label: if you watch too many hours of this program in a row, you will start to wonder if you have psychological problems. I say that without hyperbole and in a self-implicating fashion.
This brings us to the plight of LaMarcus Aldridge. Let's just say you were Joe Carroll, or at least the NBA's version of Joe Carroll, bent on making life miserable for the perennially underrated Aldridge, who is in the midst of the best basketball of his life and winning games at a rate that's unprecedented during his career. What would you do to rain on his parade? How might you try pushing his buttons?
Here's one blueprint. Design a popularity contest that often, but not always, rewards the best players, and has never rewarded Aldridge. (The All-Star Game and its fan voting procedure that determines the starting lineups for both teams, a process in which Aldridge has never previously been a factor.) Then, release the results of the popularity contest every two weeks, incrementally increasing Aldridge's tally and standing relative to the rest of the participants so that he just might take interest and maybe even get his hopes up. (Aldridge finished eighth among Western Conference big men in the first round of voting, sixth in the second round, and fifth in the third round, when the top three vote-getters would earn the right to start.)
Then, on the day it's time to announce the final results, have a prominent national writer hint that one of Aldridge's chief competitors might not be selected. (Sam Amick of USA Today Sports reported on Twitter Thursday that Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard "may not make the cut," when earlier rounds of voting had Howard in.) Then, have another one of Aldridge's chief competitors tell a reporter that he didn't expect make the starting lineup. (Jerry Zgoda of the Star-Tribune reported Thursday that Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love implied that he didn't think he was in.)
So, you're saying there's a chance. Aldridge had been the fifth man in a race for three spots, but then two of the five -- not including Aldridge -- were now potentially on the outside looking in? That would improbably make... Aldridge... in... right? Did he somehow make a crazy last-minute push and squeeze in? Could it be true? Could the overlooked have finally been noticed?
Just when those optimistic, maybe-just-maybe wheels started turning, the diabolical knife twist -- straight out of "The Following" -- came with the revelation of the results. Howard? He didn't make it. Love? He actually did make it, along with Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin. Is there a more frustrating trio of players to stand between Aldridge and an All-Star starting spot? No.
Had Howard made it, at least there would be an argument that he's a center, and he does certain things that Aldridge doesn't. But Howard didn't make it. Instead, Durant, the player whom Portland passed on in 2007 for Greg Oden, a decision that has become the subject of roughly 1.235323 million questions for Aldridge in the seven years since, as Durant has made a Finals trip, won a gold medal and grown into one of the sport's three most-popular players.
And, the real kicker, both Love and Griffin, the two players Aldridge is most often compared with, the two players who have beaten him out for All-Star spots, All-NBA recognition and general fame. Two players on teams with worse records than Aldridge's, one of whom is on a lottery team while the other is indisputably the second-best player on his own team. Two players without overwhelming statistical advantages over Aldridge. Two players who didn't really draw that many more votes than Aldridge, who landed 609,172 votes, more than five times his 2013 total (a fact that became functionally irrelevant as soon as he didn't make the top three).
Here Aldridge was again, empty-handed. But, much like Hardy, he wasn't beaten.
His response? Dumping in a career-high 44 points (on 15-for-29 shooting and 14-for-17 from the free-throw line), 13 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks in a victory over Denver, a game that saw Aldridge score Portland's last 15 points. For the sake of maximum clarity: the only Blazers player to score in the game's final 9:18 was Aldridge, and he personally outscored the Nuggets 15-14 in the final period.
"I've kind of gotten used to those things happening," Aldridge told Blazersedge afterwards, when asked about missing out on a starting spot. "Everybody around me was more upset than me. I came in tonight and [Nicolas Batum] was pretty fired up about it. My mom was pretty heated about it. Me, I was like, 'OK, this is happening again.'"
But he didn't leave it there.
"I think I definitely should have been a starter," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "But it's over with now, basically."
Technically, there is still a slight glimmer of hope for Aldridge. Should Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (or any one of the starters) wind up as an injury scratch, the Western Conference's coach would be in position to hand-select a starting lineup replacement. The coach could be Blazers coach Terry Stotts, and there's little doubt about whom he would pick. The coach could also be Thunder coach Scott Brooks, and then it becomes a bigger toss-up. But backing in on a technicality isn't the type of recognition someone in Aldridge's position is seeking.
"LaMarcus Aldridge should be an All-Star starter," TNT commentator Charles Barkley declared shortly after the line-ups were announced. But that snub talk isn't the type of recognition someone in Aldridge's position is seeking, either. Aldridge has been there before, and it's not much consolation.
Fruitless or not, there was no shortage of praise being sung by Aldridge's coach and teammates after the buzzer sounded Thursday. Of course there was. Aldridge had played through moments when Denver looked to ramp up their physicality against him. He had played through aggressive double teams. He had played through a slow start and three missed free throws, crediting Mo Williams for a little inspirational pep talk before hitting four consecutive sets of foul shots in the game's final 67 seconds to close out the win. He had earned louder "MVP" chants than ever before.
"How could I not hear it?" Aldridge asked afterwards. "You can't block that out. When you're a kid at the gym, or at the park, you practice those type of moments. ... It shows how this city is behind me right now."
He secured defensive rebounds and controlled possessions late, accepting responsibility for delivering the victory rather than passing the ball off to a guard for the charity stripe duties.
"I stand by my belief that he's the best power forward in the game," Stotts said. "I think he showed it again tonight. It's not the first time he's shown that. The starters are voted by the fans, but I think LaMarcus has the respect of the coaches and the players and the general managers in the league. He's going to be in the All-Star Game and deservedly so. I think he just proved, once again, that he's the best power forward [in the NBA]."
The chorus continued from there.
"We feel like L.A. should have been a starter," said Damian Lillard, who finished with 11 points (on 5-for-10 shooting) and 3 assists.
"I don't know why he doesn't start the All-Star Game," added Batum, who tallied 6 points (on 1-for-5 shooting), 7 rebounds and 10 assists. "With this guy, I don't know what he needs to do to prove to everybody that he's the best. I don't judge anybody [else] but he proved it again tonight."
The politically correct statements of support were crafted so carefully -- without any names being called out specifically -- that it all started to get a little bit suspicious. There's an elephant in the room, someone get more directly to the point, please. For Aldridge to be the best, others can't be. For Aldridge to be included, someone else had to be excluded.
"Can't really do much about [him being left out]," said Wesley Matthews, who finished with 24 points (on 8-for-15 shooting) and four assists. "His play speaks for itself. Our record speaks on behalf of his play. That's it."
But that wasn't it. A reporter prodded Matthews: Didn't those 44 points against the Nuggets look an awful like a statement game from Aldridge?
"I think his statement is going to come on Saturday," Matthews said.
Wouldn't you know it? The Blazers will host Love's Timberwolves on Saturday.
Laaaaaaaaaaaaadies and gentlemen, welcome to ..... the... MAIIIIIIIIIIIN EVENT! In this corner, wearing the blue and white trunks, he's 6-foot-10, leading all power forwards in Player Efficiency Rating, and representing (to some people) an imperfect process that will never be able to please everyone... it's Kevin ... LOVE.
And in this corner, donning the black and red, he's 6-foot-11, leading the league's biggest surprise team in points and rebounds, while also listening patiently as his beloved mother flips out about his lack of recognition... it's LaMarcus ... ALDRIDGE.
To be clear, Love has done nothing wrong (obviously) and if there's a villain here, it's a system and circumstances beyond any player's control. That's fine. It still took Matthews' one-liner about 15 seconds to reach Minnesota, and Love is one of the fiercest competitors this state has produced.
The very best sequences in "The Following" are the rare moments when Hardy gets to push back against the maddening madness that has engulfed his life. Let's go ahead and fast-forward through Friday and get this thing on.
Random Game Notes
- The game was announced as a sellout (20,066). The crowd was very loud in general and very abrasive towards the officials.
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user Portland Trail Blazers.
- Blazers owner Paul Allen held a quick session with Portland media members at halftime. Allen was in good spirits, given the Seahawks' upcoming trip to the Super Bowl, and he took mostly NFL questions rather than NBA questions. A full transcript is here.
- The takeaway Blazers talking points from Allen's speech: he's happy with the team's play, he wants to see Portland's defense improve, he expects the improvement to come internally, and he doesn't expect any major changes at the trade deadline.
- Here's Wesley Matthews to Blazersedge when told of Allen's "status quo" approach to the roster: "It's very comforting. That's comforting. He believes in us, we believe in ourselves. We think we can go as far as we allow ourselves."
- Here's Aldridge to Blazersedge in response to the same question: "Why make changes? This team has been great so far. We've dropped some games, but this team has been great this year. As long as we go play defense, anything is possible."
- Here's Aldridge on Mo Williams' pep talk: "He just said 'Be you.' He's seen me play all year, I've made big shots. He's seen me be great in these moments. Calm down. It did work. I was kind of wavering right there but he had talked to me."
- Aldridge got in a joke at Matthews' expense. Asked whether the team was tired in the first half following the road trip, Aldridge said he thought Portland was tired in their loss to Oklahoma City, but not against Denver. "I thought guys had better legs tonight. Wes had a dunk so guys got to be fresh."
- This heat-seeking missile dunk from Damian Lillard was something else.
- Nicolas Batum continues to be bothered by his finger injury. He said Thursday that he "re-broke it again" against the Houston Rockets and that he's "still got a lot of pain." Batum said that he expects to wear a brace for the next 6-to-10 weeks, and that the injury would take 3-to-4 weeks to heal fully if he were to completely rest. "It's going to get better. It will get all the way better in 6-to-8 weeks. I'll be OK."
- This week, both Aldridge and Damian Lillard were selected for USA Basketball's player pool in advance of the 2014 World Cup in Spain.
- Here's Lillard on the selection and his previous experience at the USA camp last summer: "It's an honor for me to not only represent the country but to be in that company with a lot of the names on there. A lot of those guys have great bodies of work and I'm excited to be a part of it. ... When you leave away from that environment, you take confidence from that. That's as good as it gets. The competition was the best part about it. It's the best players so you're going to get pushed."
- For what it's worth: My All-Star Game starters (based solely on merit with two backcourt playersand three frontcourt players, and assuming that Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook are all out with injuries)... East: John Wall, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Paul George and Roy Hibbert. West: Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwight Howard.
- Plug alert: I spent the majority of this week writing roughly 10,000 words of midseason grades for all 30 teams, which will run on SI.com on Friday. Portland secured one of three A+ grades, along with Oklahoma City and Indiana. Also, my midseason awards picks are right here.
- There were tons of signs at the game tonight: "Shaqtin' a fool for my 90th birthday," "Robin says get out of my nest," "Dame's got game," "There's no place like Rip City," "It's Lillard Time," "Cook The Nuggets," "Let's set a-Blaze the Nuggets," "We Want Bama," "All I want for my birthday is to ride the L-Train" and the best McDonald's-themed sign of the season: "Tonight McNuggets, Tomorrow McMuffins." Very nice.
- Same old, same old with the 100 points. No instructions, no chanting.
- Public Address announcer Mark Mason gave CJ McCollum a "Three-J!" shout out following one of the rookie guard's two three-pointers (maybe both?). One of my absolute pet peeves on Twitter is people replacing a letter with "3" after three-pointers: "W3SL3Y," "3J McCollum," etc. Be better than that, guys.
- One of the timeout skits: A man dressed up as a referee started freak dancing before eventually stripping off his shirt. The crowd loved it.
- Robin Lopez will be at Wizard World Comic Con this weekend. Of course.
- Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune had a nice, extended piece on Lopez.
- Terry Stotts took home ESPN.com's midseason Coach of the Year award.
- These black-and-red Adidas sneakers for Damian Lillard are generating a lot of buzz.
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian was back in the building covering the team. Glad he's back!
- I'm still getting questions about this: I am now on Twitter here, we have a new official @Blazersedge account here, Dave has joined Twitter here and Timmay! has joined Twitter here.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Well, I was very pleased with our second half, particularly defensively. I thought Nic Batum did a terrific job on [Ty] Lawson. I thought Lawson in the first half really directed their offense, scoring, passing, penetrating. Nic did a fantastic job controlling the game in the second half. It goes without saying that LaMarcus just keeps impressing everybody with what he's doing. He was aggressive to the basket, made his jump shots, made his free throws, rebounded, came up big when we needed him, made passes out of the double teams when they doubled, got block shots, he was fantastic.
Damian Lillard guarding Wilson Chandler
Well, it was mainly because I wanted to keep Nic on Lawson. That was the priority. I thought Damian battled well, he scored once in the lane. I thought Damian did a good job but I thought the priority of our defense in the second half was to contain Lawson. I didn't want to go away from that.
Team played angry in second half?
I don't know if we were playing angry, but I thought we were playing hard, we were competing, I thought we were determined. I don't know if angry is the right word. We played defensively with some emotion. I know it's in us. We're capable of doing those things. When the second unit came in during the second half, Thomas in particular, they were very active. When L.A. was on the bench, it allowed him to get an extra couple minutes. I thought that stretch was very important for us. To answer your question, I don't know if angry would be the right word. But I liked our disposition no question.
Slow first half because you were coming off recent road trip?
I don't know. I know a lot of people talk about coming back off of a road trip, and the first game after a road trip is difficult. I don't know if there is empirical evidence to confirm or deny that. The first half -- it was certainly an offensive half. Their big guys made some jump shots, but to answer your question, I don't know, I'm not one to use excuses as reason for not playing well in the first half, or not defending in the first half.
He came out of the gate, made the first three, was on a roll, particularly in the first half, he had post-up opportunities. He's as good of a competitor as I've been around at both ends of the floor. He wants to win and he wants to play well. He was into it. I liked the way he jumped into the game.
Denver's defensive approach to Aldridge and his response
He responded pretty well, that I can say. They tried to deny him the ball but we were able to get him the ball most of the time. They doubled him two or three times, they tried to push him out a little bit. In the first half they played him straight and he was able to get into the paint easily. I thought they were more aggressive and more physical [in the second half]. Other than double-teaming him two or three times, I thought they just tried to deny him the ball, but we were able to get him the ball.
Nicolas Batum, finger injury
He still gets 10 assists, seven rebounds. He got a couple rebounds, a couple of offensive rebounds that were really important, kept the ball alive, that's really important for us. Tonight was a good game for him, getting back to playing like he was before he re-injured his finger in Houston. I thought he was -- I didn't think he was tentative taking shots, aggressive with his dribble, he still had assists. He pushed the ball up in transition with his left hand. I don't think his finger impacted his game as much tonight as it did in Oklahoma City.
Responding after losses
We want to win every game. Whether we've won or lost the previous game. It's not so much that, we had two tough games on the road, Houston and Oklahoma City. We knew this was an important game for us. They're all important. I don't know how much it's in our mindset, as far as not losing three in a row, or responding after a loss. I think we go into each game trying to win that game regardless of what happened previously.
LaMarcus Aldridge left off All-Star starters, then career-high. Coincidence?
You'd have to ask him that. I stand by my belief that he's the best power forward in the game. I think he showed it again tonight. It's not the first time he's shown that. The starters are voted by the fans, but I think LaMarcus has the respect of the coaches and the players and the general managers in the league. He's going to be in the All-Star Game and deservedly so. I think he just proved, once again, that he's the best power forward.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter