The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Houston Rockets, 111-104, at the Moda Center on Thursday, improving their record to 19-4.
There's a reputation-altering momentum that's been building around LaMarcus Aldridge over the last few weeks, a collective respect that's not just limited to the "MVP" chants that keep popping up whenever he steps to the free throw line at home. Portland's winning, strong statements of support from Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, career-high stats, two Western Conference Player of the Week awards, respect from national media members, and some signature performances against high-profile opponents have combined to generate a new level of buzz for a player who has lived -- and in some cases cultivated -- a buzz-free existence.
Thursday was about the biggest stage Aldridge will find in mid-December, a nationally-televised game against a quality, big-market team with multiple All-Stars. He again carried the day -- as he has previously against the Golden State Warriors, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder, among others -- even though he started slow. At halftime, Aldridge was 3-for-10, and yet he ended the night with 31 points and a career-high 25 rebounds, the first time those numbers have been compiled in an NBA game in more than three years and the first time in Blazers franchise history that combination has ever been registered. He said thoughts of Houston's victory in Portland on November 5 were in his head, and he regularly made the Rockets defenders look like mannequins as he shot 9-for-12 in the second half to exact revenge.
"It's a blessing," Aldridge said of his night. "I'm just blessed. Tonight it was needed. I just felt good going down the stretch. I'm just trying to do anything to win games right now."
If you thought Aldridge might have drawn motivation for one of his biggest nights as a professional from his eighth-place finish among Western Conference frontcourt players in the first round of 2014 All-Star voting, he would like to dispute that. Aldridge told Blazersedge that he wasn't aware of the voting results. He claimed not to know that he received less than half of the votes given to the likes of Dwight Howard, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, and that he trailed even an injured Anthony Davis and a gimpy Pau Gasol in the standings.
While it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have access to such information, it's easy to see why he might choose to shield himself from the results. He's been to enough of these rodeos to understand how they play out, and to know that he's likely going to be sold short.
"I'm never going to get votes like that," Aldridge told Blazersedge, when informed of his placement. "That's just the reality of being up here in one of the smaller markets, so it's OK."
Market size and team popularity are huge factors -- a simple glance at the results this season or in previous years makes that self-evident -- but that's not the only factor for Aldridge. Players like Kevin Durant and Paul George have exploded to major vote totals this season, and they both play in smaller-markets. Digging past the geography and population density issues is quicker sand, though, and while he wasn't ready to give an air-it-out speech on the subject, Aldridge acknowledged that his name recognition and style of play are both limiting factors.
"I'm not going to get into it overly," he told Blazersedge. "But people probably don't know who I am, or what I do up here. Some people probably just don't like my game. I'm not flashy. I don't dunk. I don't do anything really exciting, you know?"
No, I don't know that, especially at this moment, after looking at those box score numbers, and after seeing Aldridge among the league leaders in PER, and after watching him carve up team after team with his signature jumper.
Aldridge has taken a similar Rodney Dangerfield approach before, and what he's saying has made sense in years past. But the conversations on the ground are changing. Once he was the "go-to guy." Now, he's regularly referred to by his teammates as "unstoppable." Once he was "Our MVP" around the locker room. Now, his fellow vets are pushing the "MVP candidate" angle hard and often. This growing momentum has spread across the hallway and down the corridor. Once he was a guy who could get his points and make opponents pay. Now, he's the centerpiece of the league's most efficient offense. Once he was a player that was respected but not quite feared, now he's becoming a problem that often can't be solved.
"He's a load," Rockets acting coach Kelvin Sampson said. "He's a load. I don't think I can remember seeing someone who takes so many hard, contested fallaway jumpshots and consistently makes them. He's really, really good. They don't really have an inside presence but Aldridge is almost like throwing it to a big center inside who plays on the block. He's as consistent with his contested jumpshots as the big guys are scoring in the paint."
One sure sign of a superstar is a player that leaves his opponents feeling hopeless. Former Blazers forward Shavlik Randolph once chuckled at the memory of going to training camp with the Heat. It only took one scrimmage for LeBron James to establish himself as the biggest, fastest, strongest, most athletic, most talented, smartest, most coordinated, most consistent and most competitive player on the court. His scrimmage opponents were left to hope, and usually wound up feeling hopeless.
The MVP conversation is a difficult one to broach, what with James in his prime and the Heat coming off back-to-back titles. The point isn't that Aldridge is as good or as important as James, but that the gap between the two players -- the gap between the best in the world and Portland's best -- has never been smaller. And that Aldridge, who until very recently was a very, very distant outsider, is in the process of earning a seat at the table.
What more was Terrence Jones really supposed to do on Thursday? What could the Rockets have reasonably done as a team to slow Aldridge down without giving up something else? Double him, and Portland's shooters have made teams pay. Front him, and Robin Lopez has stepped up to knock down mid-range shots. Leave him in single coverage and you can forget about it. Fail to box him out and he's going to eat down low. "The Blazers have answered test after test," you hear people say, and Aldridge is assembling a pretty impressive collection of pelts in his pouch along the way. As the video game numbers and "NBA 2K14" jokes piled up, wasn't there a certain level of helplessness being felt by Houston?
"Hats off to him" is the default phrase after an elite player gets it going, and there's been an awful lot of doffed caps over the last six weeks. There's always going to be a lag between when a player turns a corner -- or kicks up a tier -- and when the mainstream public recognizes it, but I wonder whether we're now firmly in the early stages of that transition, whether the momentum that seems to be gathering on the ground and in the Moda Center will wind up significantly boosting Aldridge's national standing over the next 12 months.
We know this much: Aldridge won't be "on the bubble" for this year's All-Star team and it's not too soon to re-open the All-NBA conversation, which has been dormant since 2011. A little playoff success did wonders for the likes of George and Stephen Curry in this year's All-Star voting, and it feels like a mistake to assume that a player who is performing at Aldridge's level -- certainly above any previous level of play, as an individual and as a team -- is doomed to a lifetime of no recognition.
"All those MVP chants, he deserves it," Batum, who finished with 15 points (on 5-for-11 shooting), six rebounds and six assists, said. "It's early right now in the season but L.A. should be in the starting lineup for the All-Star Game and be in the MVP discussion. He got big numbers and we win games. When you have big numbers like 31 and 25, and you're number one in the West, you've got to be up there. And he's up there."
There were little things to like about his night: He aggressively stepped out to guard James Harden on one possession, and the Rockets guard chose to pass out of the one-on-one opportunity; He stripped Harden from the blindside to help along a 10-0 third-quarter run; He drew shooting fouls on multiple occasions from defenders frantically attempting to contest his turnaround; He found and trusted in Lopez when Houston tried to front and load up on him; He sealed things with a key and-one in the paint in the game's closing minutes.
Whether the motivation came from the earlier loss to the Rockets, the TNT audience, the tight race at the top of the West, or the All-Star votes is secondary to the fact that "locked in and fully motivated" has been his default setting this season. Now, when he hits those stretches of extra effort -- like his 11 points in the first seven minutes of the third quarter -- it's almost always a game-changing experience. That, like the opponent hopelessness, is another sign of an elite weapon.
"Y'all talk about me playing mad, but L.A. plays mad too," Wesley Matthews, who had 18 points (on 6-for-16 shooting) and two assists, said. "L.A. is just growing, getting better. Everybody wants to put ceilings on players because of age, X amount of years in the league, [they] plateau at some point. I don't believe in that. He just continues to get better... [and] the better we play, it's easier for him."
The Blazers have never played better around him. Name a starter, any starter, and there's a good argument that this has been that player's career year. Lopez was the key supporting cast member against the Rockets, who enjoyed a 32-point, 17-rebound effort from Dwight Howard. Portland's center put up 16 points and 10 rebounds of his own; he lost his match-up but he more than did his job, as he wasn't annihilated.
In the fourth, Lopez blocked a Chandler Parsons lay-up and he saved a point by fouling Harden on a dunk attempt that surely would have gone uncontested by the Blazers last season. When he knocked down a mid-range jumper to put Portland up seven with 5:35 to go, more than one of his teammates pumped their fists. "If he's hitting that, we're not losing this one," their body language screamed.
"Robin plays the right way," coach Terry Stotts said. "Rather than give up an easy two and stay out of it, he made them work for it. I talk about the job he had to do on Howard and at the same time to be in a position to be able to help on their penetration. I thought he was effective in both. Using fouls -- they drive in hard and I don't think he's trying to foul, I think he's trying to make a good defensive play, but he doesn't care if it ends up being a foul. He knows it's in the best interest of the team to make that defensive play."
Portland's stops from the four-minute mark to the two-minute mark of the fourth helped turn a one-possession game into a walk-away win. The Blazers went on an 11-1 run during that stretch, with Harden's one free throw on the contested dunk attempt the only point that Houston could muster.
"[Lopez] reminds me of Joel Przbyilla back in the day, but younger and with a better outside shot," Batum said. "He takes so much pressure off LaMarcus. We've got a young five who can do all the dirty work inside. He does all the screens, all the rebounds, fight inside, guard the big guys, I love Robin Lopez, he's a blessing for us."
But it's Lopez who is the first to credit most of his success to Aldridge. His job is easy, Lopez says again and again, and it's true that he's playing a role rather than running the show. A common question posed to All-NBA candidates is whether they make their teammates better, and it's much easier to perceive a guard's ability to succeed with this criteria than it is for a forward. Hasn't Aldridge made Lopez significantly better? Hasn't Aldridge made Matthews, Batum and Lillard better, too? Can't some portion of their individual successes be traced to Aldridge's presence pretty directly? Doesn't that say a lot about Aldridge, relative to many of the other players competing for top-shelf consideration?
There won't be any sweating out the All-Star reserves selection show for Aldridge this year and there won't be any purchasing of plane tickets for a back-up vacation "just in case." The "end of the bench" at the All-Star Game should end in New Orleans too. Aldridge has noted that he tends to keep quiet when he goes to the All-Star Games; My crystal ball is telling me that he will have a little more to say, and a larger audience, this time around.
"I'm not even worried about that," Aldridge told Blazersedge, when asked whether he's come to terms with the idea that he's no longer a "fringe" All-Star and now enjoying a firmer standing. "That's not even my focus. Right now it's just coming out and winning games. If I do what I have to do on the court, everything else will work itself out."
Jay-Z once dissed and dismissed Nas by saying that he had "fallen from top 10 to not mentioned at all." Aldridge is making that particular journey backwards -- climbing out of relative obscurity instead of falling into it-- and there are mandatory repercussions awaiting those who sustain this level of excellence and upward trajectory. If Aldridge keeps doing what he has to do, like he's been doing it, the widespread respect that he's seemingly written off could still be in his future.
- This one was announced as a sellout (19,997). Very full despite the worst traffic to the arena in recent memory.
- Here are game highlights via YouTube user PortlandTrailBlazers.
- Here's how Aldridge explained his career-high rebounding numbers this season: "Maybe God just gave me this gift for this season. I think I've just been more in the paint this year. It's about getting older. Now, I understand where I should be on rebounds, this is one of those seasons where I'm just doing well at it."
- Lopez on Aldridge's rebounding: "He's been unbelievably tenacious. He's been crashing the boards like hell on both ends."
- I enjoyed this video interview of LaMarcus Aldridge conducted by Kevin Arnovitz of TrueHoop. Thanks to JelaniGNatural in the FanShots.
- A number of people wrote in to say that the TNT broadcasting crew through their support behind the "Rose Garden" instead of the Moda Center.
- Dane Carbaugh of A Young Sabonis broke down Lopez's offensive contributions in great detail (with moving pictures) right here.
- CJ McCollum injury update right here.
- Portland's first half was full of some terrible transition defense which was rough to watch because you know the Blazers' coaching staff was harping on it in the run up to the game. Any time Terrence Jones is dribbling coast-to-coast for an uncontested dunk something is seriously wrong.
- Portland again had a strong run to start the third and they looked like a different team coming out of halftime. Aldridge said the iPad study helped him realize he needed to be more aggressive when dealing with single coverage.
- Aldridge rejected the idea Portland is starting to become a so-called "second half team" because the slow starts are concerning to him: "I don't want to say that. That's definitely not something you want to get in your head. Just having been as great in the first half. The third quarter, we see the things we're not doing well, we just go and do them better."
- Wesley Matthews uncorked a tongue-twister in talking about Portland's first-half defense: ""We have to start stacking stops at the beginning of the game, so that we don't have dog fights." Say that five times fast: Start stacking stops, start stacking stops, start stopping stacks, stop starting stacks...
- Portland scored 111 points even though Damian Lillard went just 1-for-10. That's nuts.
- The highlight of Lillard's night was a late double technical foul following a little tugging match with Patrick Beverley. Houston's guard drew the ire of Thunder fans when he was involved in a play that injured Russell Westbrook during the playoffs, and he's generally regarded as one of the scrappier point guards in the league. He tried to poke at the ball while Lillard was holding it, and Lillard wasn't playing that game.
- Here's Lillard, to Blazersedge, on the exchange with Beverley: "It was just little stuff like that the whole game. It was a dead play and I was just holding the ball, he was slapping at the ball. I was just like, 'Whatchu doing?' I don't understand where the tech came in. They probably thought it was more serious than it was. It wasn't even a big deal to be honest with you. ... The referees turned and it was like, boom, right away. It wasn't nothing big."
- Former Oregon Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas -- set to play for the Arena Football League's "Portland Thunder" -- was in attendance and participated in a timeout activity.
- Erik Gundersen of The Columbian has a few funny quotes from Aldridge on a new commercial for the McLoughlin Auto Mall that he did with Lopez.
- Lopez drew laughter and applause for knowing all the names of Santa's reindeers during one jumbotron skit. His teammates were mostly stumped.
- How about that crazy skip bounce pass from Nicolas Batum to Matthews in the left corner for three?
- A pretty weak sign collection: "I see All-Stars" ... "Houston: You Have A Problem" ... "Let's Get Moda-Vated" (oof).
- This GIF of Meyers Leonard goofing on the bench is pretty funny. Via @CJZero.
- The great Chalupa freeze-out continues as the jumbotron continues to downplay the 100-point moment before it happens. No audible crowd reaction or chant that I heard.
- Lillard, always matter-of-fact, was true to form when asked about Aldridge's big numbers: "That just says how high of a level he's playing on right now, [but] I've seen him get 30 and 20 twice before."
- Matthews on what Aldridge's numbers say: "Best power forward in the NBA. There you go."
- Lillard to David Aldridge of NBA.com on what Portland will need to do to prove they can be a force in the postseason: "It will come down to us defending. Everybody knows we're a jumpshooting team. It will definitely come down to us being able to defend. Tonight we didn't make a lot of jumpshots for a lot of the game, but we were able to get it done defensively for long enough so when the shots did start to fall, we were still able to win the game."
- Blazersedge reader Sean M. wrote in to say that he was the winner of an iPad mini during a jumbotron contest that had three copy machines spin around. He had to select, with the help of the crowd, which machine had the Blazers logo in it. Sweet prize. Now Sean can practice adjusting to double teams and finding shooters just like the pros.
- I handed out my first-quarter awards at SI.com on Monday. Aldridge was No. 5 on the MVP list.
- Thanks to everyone who submitted questions during Wednesday's Reddit NBA AMA. The link is here if you missed it.
- I talked Blazers at length on an SB Nation podcast with Paul Flannery earlier this week. Audio here.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
The two halves were obviously a lot different. Neither team could really get it going offensively in the first half. The defense kind of held up for both teams. Everybody started finding their groove offensively. We had a lot of good performances. Obviously L.A. was fantastic. He was doing everything. The game was coming to him, big rebounds, big shots, kicked it out of the post when he needed to. He was terrific.
Robin -- even though Howard goes 32 and 17, the fact that he took the challenge to guard him straight up, it took threes out of the game. They really rely on the three a lot, we were able to minimize what they did there. Transition -- they're a good transition team. They had their opportunities in the first half but for the most part, for the game, we were able to minimize that as well. It was a good home win.
I don't know if there was one thing in particular. Our passing was good. To be honest, I thought we had really good -- our offense was good in the first half. We just didn't finish at the rim, we had some open looks, we had a lot of really good opportunities in the first half we didn't finish. The second half, the same opportunities were there and we were able to take advantage of them.
You would have to ask him. I don't know. You would ahve to ask him. You've seen him play for eight years now. I'm glad that he is. He's very determined. Playing alongside Robin, he helps occupy some people and [Aldridge] goes and gets them. I think it's a team thing. Rebounding is a lot of individual will and I thought some of those rebounds he was really persistent to go get.
Aldridge versatility to play defense against perimeter players in situations
That's a good point. That's probably an understated part of his game tonight -- he really took the challenge, when we switched on a lot of pick-and-rolls, he kept [James] Harden and those guys in front of him. He made them shoot over the top of them, we didn't get beat on penetration when he switched on to them. He really communicated well. Our pick-and-roll coverage isn't a straight switch, it's something that needs to be communicated. The guy guarding Harden -- the communication that enabled us to be effective with the switching as well.
Demeanor evolving as team passes tests
I think we're growing in confidence. I think we go into games with a certain level of confidence. At the same, we realize that we're playing hard, and our success is because we're playing hard. It's not coming easy. Our record is what it is, but it's not easy. We have to compete every night. I think the combination of confidence and just competing is there every there night.
Robin Lopez using fouls late to break up scoring opportunities
Robin plays the right way. Rather than give up an easy two and stay out of it, he made them work for it. I talk about the job he had to do on Howard and at the same time to be in a position to be able to help on their penetration. I thought he was effective in both. Using fouls -- they drive in hard and I don't think he's trying to foul, I think he's trying to make a good defensive play, but he doesn't care if it ends up being a foul. He knows it's in the best interest of the team to make that defensive play.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter