The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, 111-104, at the Moda Center on Wednesday night, improving their record to 16-3.
Everyone -- everyone -- likes to feel appreciated. That goes for the almost seven-foot millionaires in our midst, that tiny sliver of society that is so scrutinized and celebrated, so criticized and idolized, that just about everything becomes white noise to them, and beloved noise-canceling headphones are always nearby, ready to take care of the rest.
Appreciation has long been central to the discussion of LaMarcus Aldridge. He's been called soft; he's been given feminine, sexist nicknames. How did he get really along with Brandon Roy? How did he feel about taking a backseat? How did he navigate the transition of power and fill those popular shoes? Does he feel a bit miffed that he's still answering questions to this day about Roy and Greg Oden?
He initially resisted the attention that comes with an All-Star campaign; it seemed to this observer that had no use for forced recognition. It goes without saying that no one wants to be snubbed. Once he was selected, he was clearly peeved when he barely played in his All-Star debut. He's joked that he wishes he could dunk like Blake Griffin, who has the national advertising campaigns that Aldridge doesn't, but at the same time he has maintained that he belongs at the top of the power forward discussion.
There have been whispers, over the years, that he doesn't quite understand why he hasn't been unconditionally embraced by Blazers fans like Roy or Joel Przybilla. Some wondered what he made of the Blazers' regular trumpeting of Damian Lillard's accomplishments last season. He has admitted to being "overly emotional" at Portland's struggles last year. Was the organization really going to waste a year (or two) of his prime?
He's not a natural public communicator and he seems to know this, and he also seems to understand that the line between communication and self-promotion is as thin as it's ever been, if it even still exists. It's understandable why appreciation would matter to him.
Aldridge scored a season-high 38 points against the Thunder, hitting 17-of-28 field goals, and he added 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals. He scored in so many different ways that it took Lillard a full paragraph to list them all, and his third quarter bombardment -- 16 points on 8-for-9 shooting -- stood as one of the most commanding stretches of his career. The Moda Center rewarded him with "MVP" chants as he stepped to the free throw line in the game's closing sequence, and he said afterwards that he savored this collective sign of respect.
"Just surreal," Aldridge said of the chanting. "It was humbling, you know, to have that moment here."
He could have stopped there but he didn't, and what came next called back to all of the appreciation episodes listed above.
"I've been here so long and I've had very few of those types of chants here," Aldridge said. "That was fun. I thought that made the night complete for me."
This wasn't a malicious "I told you so" and it wasn't pouty in the slightest. Still, the subliminal messaging wasn't, well, subliminal. He loved the appreciation, knowing that he had earned it, but he isn't quite ready to let the louder critics and the silent observers completely off the hook for selling him short. Last season, Aldridge laughed off a missed jumper that could have been a game-winner, a sign that he had come to terms with the slams, the unfavorable comparisons to others at his position, and the nit-picking that has followed him along the way. Here, Aldridge seemed to be inviting the world to operate on his terms, to play by his rules, to cheer "MVP" not only because he deserved the love on this night but because he believes that he's accrued that respect since 2006.
"He's our go-to guy," Blazers forward Nicolas Batum told Blazersedge, raising the bar just 48 hours after declaring that this is the best stretch of Aldridge's career. "He's a franchise player. He's the face of the franchise. When we need something, [we go to him]. Everybody goes to somebody. Miami goes to LeBron [James], L.A. goes to Kobe [Bryant], OKC goes to [Kevin] Durant. Us -- we go to L.A."
They went to him and went to him and went to him. Aldridge's 28 shots fell one short of tying his career-high, and Blazers guard Wesley Matthews couldn't believe Aldridge didn't get to 29. With less than a minute to play and the Blazers up one, Aldridge passed up an open elbow jumper to feed Matthews in the left corner. He missed a three-pointer.
"We're feeding the hot hand," Matthews, who had 13 points and five rebounds, told Blazersedge. "L.A. had it going. That play where he passed it to me in the corner and I shot the three, I was mad at him. I didn't want that ball. The whole team was yelling at him. 'Shoot the ball! What are you doing?' ... Just put the ball up. When you've got it going like that, put the ball up."
That story was told with a wide smile and it was received with wide smiles. One of the great things about basketball: sometimes the guy receiving the pass is thinking the exact same thing as the guy seated in the last row. Here, the active participants in an ultra-efficient, movement-oriented offense wanted the man with the hot hand and the soft jumper to scrap the flow and just let it rip. Portland's offensive magic has derived from its balance, and here everyone in the building was rooting for Aldridge to jump up and down on the scale like a trampoline, balance be damned.
"That's what was working for us, our team recognized that," Robin Lopez, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds, told Blazersedge, when asked how it happened that Aldridge emerged as such a singular offensive force. "Did you see them stop him? They never stopped him."
Lillard had 14 points and six assists, and in this game he and Russell Westbrook took a backseat to Aldridge and Kevin Durant, who hit for 33 points on 11-for-23 shooting. Often this year, Lillard has slow-played the first half and upped his game after halftime. Here, he simply enjoyed the show.
"That's [Aldridge] taking over," Lillard told Blazersedge. "We give him the ball on the block and he do what he does, and that's score the ball. Going to the middle, to his running jump hook, fading away baseline, he did it all. He got offensive rebounds, he competed in the paint. It was some dirty work being done. He got some lay-ups off offensive rebounds, his turnaround was going a few times in the middle. That was just him taking over the game."
See, a full paragraph.
"He was shooting turnarounds from almost the three-point line on top of our bigs and knocking them down," Durant said. "That's what great players do. They come through in the clutch and make shots, and he's a shot-maker."
Thunder coach Scott Brooks added: "He's an All-Star having an All-Star night. He made 17 or 18 field goals that were all contested."
Aldridge's second-half take-off changed the complexion of a game that had begun in undisciplined fashion for the Blazers. A turnover-heavy first quarter was followed by a contentious sequence just before halftime, when a series of calls upset the Blazers to the point that Terry Stotts was hit with a rare technical foul.
Stotts and his players weren't sold on the notion that the angry outburst turned things, and indeed the Thunder were in position to potentially win until the very end, thanks to Durant and 20 combined points from Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson off the bench. If the technical foul wasn't a fulcrum, it was a jolt, at the very least. The Blazers committed just four turnovers in the second half (after committing seven in the first half) and allowed just five second-chance points (after conceding 15 in the first half). Portland shot 50 percent in the second half after shooting 40 percent in the first half.
Still, it wasn't the bickering and politicking that Stotts saw as the game-changing sequence. In a very unusual move, Portland's coach took a moment during his call-and-response, question-and-answer post-game session to offer an unprompted compliment to one of his players. The recipient: Dorell Wright, who made up for an eyesore turnover by Mo Williams by chasing down Lamb in transition, altering a potential dunk attempt. Portland dodged that bullet on one end and Lillard promptly hit a three-pointer on the other, making for a five-point swing in a matter of 12 seconds.
"The one thing I would like to say: I thought Dorell Wright's play with 8-something to go in the fourth quarter was a huge play for us," Stotts said. "We're up four, Lamb is going to dunk it and gain the momentum. That play, making him change [the shot], Dame following it up [with a three-pointer], that was a big momentum play for us. Those little things, those are the little things that win games like this."
Lillard agreed that this was the sequence that turned a tight contest in Portland's favor. Aldridge would go on to score eight straight points between the 4:30 mark and the 2:30 mark to keep the Blazers in the driver's seat. The Thunder kept coming, as is their style, and the two teams took a moment to breathe and plot after Matthews' missed three-pointer. Aldridge had passed and no one could understand why, and the Blazers were determined to give him the ball yet again. Up one with 37 seconds, Portland broke the timeout with a play that was designed to feed Aldridge on the left block. The plan was for Batum to loop from the right wing to the left wing, receive the ball, and enter it to Aldridge.
The ball never got to Aldridge, as Batum came well clear of Durant. Receiving the ball at the left angle, Batum turned and fired a three-pointer in one motion, with 18 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
"The play was for LaMarcus. I should come off a pindown and give the ball inside," Batum said. "I just run the baseline, cut, received the ball. I was surprised at first to be that wide open. So, shoot it."
There is a television program called "Flashpoint" that follows a hostage negotiation team that pulls out the sniper rifles in every single episode as they battle various criminals. The team loves to use the code word "Scorpio" to signify that it's OK to shoot to kill, and the snipers always say they "have the solution" when a target is lined up in the crosshairs. Watch enough episodes in a row, and the whole thing turns into a bit of a joke. These guys almost never actually shoot anyone, and the tension that mounts as they go through the scenarios is undercut by the fact that they almost always find a way to talk the criminals down in non-violent fashion.
And then there's Batum, who fired without a code word, without warning, without a second thought or a glance at the shot clock, and with absolute, 100 percent confidence. The best words to describe his three-pointer considering the circumstances and his manner would be "kill shot," even if that's not the most politically correct phrase.
"I was scared he wasn't going to shoot it," Matthews joked to Blazersedge, loud enough so that Batum could hear him from the next locker over.
Again, absolutely no hesitation: Batum uncorked a stream of aerosol spray deodorant in Matthews' direction, nailing a reporter in the process.
"Oh, you're still here?" Matthews said in his teammate's direction, not missing a beat. "We had a play to get L.A. the ball in the post. I don't know what happened with their coverage, but Nic was wide open. I was like, 'Please shoot this ball.' He rose up and let it go."
The shot gave Portland a four-point lead, making it a two-possession game. There are gut punches, daggers and kill shots, and this fell in the third category. The shot left the Thunder unable to score again, with Westbrook falling down as he committed a turnover and Brooks earning a technical in a last-ditch effort to back his guys.
"He was so open," Stotts said, indicating he had no issue with the quick shot. "You can't make shots if you don't believe you're going to make them. Nic is too good of a shooter."
Aldridge, too, was happy to see Batum let it fly.
"I had been telling him all night to look for his opportunities to take shots," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "[Batum] caught K.D. sleeping on the weakside, ran to the three-point line and that was big for us."
Batum finished with 14 points (on 6-for-10 shooting) and six rebounds, and he wasn't all that interested in talking about his shot. He took it instinctively -- not thinking about the potentially disastrous consequences -- and it worked out. Some would call that "making your own luck," some would call it "lucky," and some would call it the type of thing that tends to happen when a team is on a month-long roll. Batum wasn't all that interested in parsing his moment because he was too busy talking about what happened just a few seconds after his three: The "MVP" cheers for Aldridge.
"Finally," Batum said. "He deserves that. He deserves to be in the [MVP] discussion right now because of what we're doing right now, No. 1 in the West, No. 2 in the league. He's the best [Blazers] player so he has to be in the discussion right now. He's a top five player for me [in the league] right now."
Appreciate this performance, and appreciate the fact that Aldridge let it be known -- in his own way -- that he's been listening and keeping score for all these years.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was 18,950. Everything I said about Monday night's empty seats hurting my heart goes double for this one.
- There was a decent number of Thunder jerseys/shirts in the crowd and some Sonics gear too. The road fans weren't nearly as loud as the Bulls and other teams have been though.
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user NBATV...
- Here are Aldridge highlights via YouTube user NBA.
- Here's a game breakdown from Coach Nick of Basketball Breakdown.
- I'm sure you guys saw the Blazers' official account tweet a crack at the pitiful Eastern Conference on Wednesday. If you missed it, go here. That kind of joking was commonplace during the L.A. Kings' playoff run a few years ago and it helped the team gain a large online following. The Blazers' VP of Marketing arrived from the Kings and it's always been an open question as to whether that style, which drew headlines and some criticism, would find a home in Portland. Interestingly, the approach happens to run exactly counter to the buttoned-down style favored by GM Neil Olshey, Stotts and the Blazers players so far this season. This will be an interesting dynamic to watch play out.
- The sign of the night was an easy pick: "OKC: Softer than Drake." The man behind the sign: Michael Mannheimer, who proudly displayed it on Twitter.
- Drake happened to be in Portland on Tuesday and a number of Blazers attended his show. Erik Gundersen of The Columbian wrote on that.
- There was a jumbotron bit that had the Blazers listening to pop music by the likes of Katy Perry and One Direction. Predictably, there weren't too many guys who were ready to admit they had heard the songs.
- Speaking of singing, Damian Lillard started crooning the classic "Too Close" by Next in the locker room. As Beckley Mason noted on Twitter, Aldridge joked: "Sounds like a girl getting beat up by a dog." Yes, that was an incredibly timely reference to Michelle Obama's pooch problem.
- After the first-half chatting, the Blazers ran a modified hook-and-ladder play again that succeeded in getting Mo Williams to the free throw line.
- The halftime show was absolutely mesmerizing. Granted, I'm pretty sleep-deprived these days but extreme trampoling group "Fippenout" (Facebook page here) was a good time. They did backflips on a trampoline while wearing skis and snowboards. A catastrophic injury waiting to happen at every turn.
- This Steven Adams catch-and-finish in transition was fantastic.
- The Blazers' bench went absolutely nuts after Wright's defensive play that was mentioned above. Lillard had a lot of praise for Wright on that play: "That was big. I think that was a point of the game where it kind of really turned in our favor. He could have easily let him go and take off and dunk the ball. ... From there on we were like, let's win this game."
- Lillard said that the play was emblematic of the team's desire to be a pain to play against: "That's irritating, when you have a breakaway dunk and you feel like you're about to go do something and you see a guy sprinting behind you. ... It's putting some thought in his head that someone is coming. [Lamb] lost the ball tonight. ...That mentality of not giving up anything free, finishing plays, D-Wright chased it down and finished the play."
- Wright on his defensive play: "I was just running down, doing what I could, as far as getting the effort play. Little things that don't show up, that's what it's all about. Getting back and doing what I can. I'm not going to be out there too long so I have to go out there and play my minutes hard."
- Lillard, never shy to fire shots up himself, on Batum's kill-shot three: "That was the right shot to take. Some teams might have been mad that he shot that ball. It was the right shot, that just says a lot about how coach gives us that freedom to make the play we think is right."
- Aldridge on his second-half dominance: "That was in the flow. We just went pick-and-roll, ran sets that I got easy looks and that was just in the flow. Once I got going, we just tried to milk it."
- The Blazers gave out their "Fan of the Night" award to a guy who was wearing a shirt that read "Forever The Rose Garden." Classic.
- There was again no McDonald's graphic as the Blazers approached 100 points, because the game was so tight, and there was no "Cha-Lu-Pa" chant either. Dang.
- I joked on Twitter: "Open your window on the drive home. Aldridge will be personally flinging the McMuffins into your vehicle. No need to slow down."
- Another good sign: "Thunder... it's just noise."
- Pretty solid tweet here from Blazers marketing executive Dewayne Hankins: "Blazers now 16-0 against teams not named after things found in space (Suns 2, Rockets 1)."
- I'm ready for a jumbotron feature where Joel Freeland and Robin Lopez go one-on-one to see who can express a greater amount of disbelief at a foul call. Once they go at it for a few rounds, the rest of the Blazers would then be called in to offer impersonations of Freeland and Lopez for maximum comedic effect.
- Aldridge on the MVP chatter: "I'm not even worried about that. I just want to win games. Tonight was one of those nights I got it going early, I felt good going down the stretch and I just made shots."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It was a good in for us especially after we really didn't have much going on in the first half. We couldn't quite come up with the loose balls, offensive rebounds, hustle players. It seemed like they had a lot of momentum in the first half. I really like the way we came out in the beginning of the third quarter, obviously. I think offense and defense go hand in hand, our defense picked up, our offense picked up, the crowd got into it. Everybody contributed. The second half was great.
Describe LaMarcus Aldridge's game
I don't know if I have the words to be honest. Offensively he can score but I liked his toughness, I liked his leadership, I liked his competitive fire. As much as he played very well, it was a lot of the intangibles that I really appreciated from his tonight.
Second-quarter back-and-forth snapped you guys out of it?
I don't know. You can look at that. The fact that regardless of the way the first half ended, we knew that we didn't do the things we needed to do in the first half. We knew that in the second quarter, regardless of how that first half finished, we would have come in the locker room the same way. They had 15 fast break points, 15 second-chance points at halftime. We knew we had to do better.
Nicolas Batum's three-pointer
To be honest, the play was [for him] to dump it down into LaMarcus. The play was for him to get it and throw it in, he was so open. You can't make shots if you don't believe you're going to make them. Nic is too good of a shooter. We had two or three good looks before that, wide open threes that didn't go. Those things work themselves out.
LaMarcus Aldridge in the second half
We tried to give him the ball different ways. Early post-ups, so we wouldn't play against their half-court defense, so they couldn't get into their fronts. We involved in them some pick-and-rolls to change things up. I think you just -- the ball finds him. I thought he worked for position.
Wesley Matthews defense on Russell Westbrook
It was good. I knew that we were going to go to that. Dame had the two fouls early. We probably went to it a little sooner than we normally would have. Wes is a competitor. He loves those types of challenges, he did it last year. He loves the moment, the defensive challenge.
Changes in second half from first half
I don't know -- I didn't see the quarter box for that quarter, our biggest thing was not giving them easy baskets. Easy baskets meaning putbacks. I think in the first half they were 7-for-9 in second-chance points, getting them and putting them back in. I thought we limited their easy baskets, easy points, more than anything. It was so deflating for everybody in the first half -- we had had a number of good defensive possessions, somehow the ball bounces around, they came up with it. We could have had a lead, it just takes a lot of wind out of you when you have a possession and you don't come up with it.
The one thing I would like to say: I thought Dorell Wright's play with 8-something to go in the fourth quarter was a huge play for us. We're up four, Lamb is going to dunk it and gain the momentum. That play, making him change it, Dame following it up, that was a big momentum play for us. Those little things, those are the little things that win games like this.
I think everybody is buying in to how we win games. We're not going to hold teams under 90 every night, we're not going to score 110 every night. Finding ways to compete, everybody is kind of embraced their roles and they're thriving in it. As a team going forward, in the process of becoming a better team, that's critical.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter