If the Portland Trail Blazers played no other game this season--if super-powered aliens from outer space took over the planet and declared a moratorium on NBA basketball forevermore--Blazers fans could fuel a lifetime of happiness after seeing their franchise superstar and his team make a strong comeback against the Washington Wizards tonight. In case you missed it (and I'm not sure how you could), LaMarcus Aldridge announced today that he is foregoing surgery on his injured thumb, electing to play in tonight's game and delaying rehab until the off-season if possible. As fans entered the arena and saw their hero in uniform and taking jumpers, they let out involuntary shouts of...
Ermahgerd, indeed. We all knew Aldridge could hit a jumper, grab a rebound, and block shots. Now it's apparent that his awesomeness is so overwhelming that its gravity compacted 6-8 weeks of rehab into 2 games.
And boy, did the Blazers need Aldridge tonight. Washington got off to a bullet-quick start, pushing the tempo fast enough to make Judas Priest walk off the stage in disgust. Paul Pierce and John Wall destroyed the Blazers early as Portland couldn't get back on defense, couldn't spread to cover mid-range shots, and basically got housed.
The Wizards streaked out to a 13-2 lead before Aldridge took over. His first couple shots in the game were thought-filled and shaky, but after Portland got down big he appeared to forget everything and just shoot on instinct. His instinct...it's pretty good. Aldridge would score 10 of Portland's next 12 points in the quarter. They still couldn't contain the Wizards on defense but at least they announced they were putting up a fight.
Portland's second unit had a pretty good first-period shift, likely because the young pups like to play Wizards-style basketball. Running? Shooting freely? Throwing bodies around? Portland's bench can do that, especially with Treebeard "Let's Not Be Hasty" Kaman hanging out in the starting lineup nowadays.
Washington led 32-20 after one but couldn't keep up the pace in the second. Their scoring slowed to a crawl. Bradley Beal put up 7 in the quarter but aside from that, their offense was potluck and yucky. Portland trended that way as well, as play turned sloppy for both sides. But the Blazers were saved by 5 three-pointers drained by 5 different players: Meyers Leonard, Dorell Wright, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and CJ McCollum. They provided the heart of a 25-point period, which was good enough to pull the Blazers within 10 at the half, 55-45.
Portland's defense took over big-time in the third quarter, holding the Wizards to only 15 points. This was mostly a matter of getting back, covering jump shooters, and rebounding well. Pierce had 8 points in the quarter, but the Blazers were willing to live with that, especially since Aldridge matched him exactly. Again Portland's three-point shooting made the difference. A trio of triples in the third brought the Blazers back within 1, 70-69, entering the final frame.
If you want to understand the fourth period, just look at Portland's scoring summary: a Steve Blake layup, an Aldridge chip shot, 15 made free throws, and 5 more three-pointers. 30 of their 34 points came from the line or beyond the arc. Not coincidentally, the Wizards looked tired. They weren't running anymore. The motion in their offense slowed, then stopped. Jumpers fell short. Portland's foul shots and threes tell you everything you need to know about how well Washington moved their feet on defense as the game waned. Like a veteran cross-country runner closing on the guys who rabbited off the start line, Portland passed the Wizards then held off their charge down the stretch for a much-needed 103-96 victory.
It's hard to talk about anything but LaMarcus in this game. His inauspicious start, moving gingerly and shooting tentatively, gave pause. Once his head cleared, it was fast-forward all the way. He showed nearly every move in his repertoire, looking fragile only on dunks and occasionally on defense. As long as he didn't think, you almost couldn't tell he was favoring one hand. Every time he hesitated, things got ugly. The big question will be, "How much will he feel compelled to hesitate as the season wears on?" The Blazers will sure take 26 points and 9 rebounds as he's figuring it out.
You could see the impact Aldridge's presence had on his teammates as well, not just emotionally but in floor spacing. Matthews got open repeatedly. Lillard found more room to drive tonight than he has in a week's worth of games combined. The bench got better looks too. Things which had been hard the last couple games suddenly became easier again, more natural.
The game wasn't all sunshine and roses for Portland. Once again they allowed 30+ points in the first quarter. Washington shot 49% for the game. The Wizards scored 17 on the break. They shut down Portland's offensive rebounding too. But after the initial shock of seeing John Wall destroy them a cappella, the Blazers recovered nicely and hit the Wizards' weak spots hard. Washington isn't a great paint scoring team but they usually get more than the 24 in the key Portland allowed them tonight. They aren't great offensive rebounders either, but 2 O-rebs is a mighty low number. The Blazers took care of the ball and limited the Wizards to 7 points after turnovers. Portland's bench outscored their counterparts 32-17. All of these have been issues for the Blazers this year. Tonight they tidied up every one.
This was more than a good game, more than an emotional return. After the shaky first period, this turned into a solid game of the likes we haven't seen recently...the Blazers doing what they're supposed to do, with the added bonus of players off the bench contributing as well as the starters. You couldn't have asked for a nicer welcome back for #12.
The Complete LaMarcus Aldridge Stat Line: 9-22 shooting, 26 points, 9 rebounds, 8-8 free throws made, 3 assists, 2 steals in 36 minutes. The most indicative number may be those minutes played. This isn't a knee injury or foot problem. Aldridge has full mobility and conditioning. If he's going to play, chances are he's going to play a full game. That's good news for the Blazers.
You can flat-out ignore Wesley Matthews shooting 7-19 from the field. The only number that matters is 5-11 three-pointers made. Matthews spearheaded the Blazers' 42%, 13-31 evening from the arc. The three-pointers saved this game.
Damian Lillard shot only 5-13, 2-6 from distance but he made 8 trips to the line and hit all 8. He and Aldridge led the Blazers to a perfect 20-20 from the foul line. Note that tonight Dame scored 20 points on 13 shots. In his last 2 outings he's posted 21 and 22 points but he's taken 22 and 23 attempts in the process. Those free throws make a huge difference for him.
Chris Kaman had 10 rebounds but once again proved that his offensive repertoire as a starter is limited to jump shots and rebound put-backs. His post game is slow and creates as many turnovers as shots.
Allen Crabbe started for Nicolas Batum in the first half and got overwhelmed, playing only 7 minutes. Will Barton replaced him in the second half. Batum, by the way, has revealed that he's been playing with a torn ligament in his right wrist for the last month.
Barton shot 2-6 but played a surprisingly decent defensive game in 22 minutes. Washington plays his style.
Dorell Wright was one of the brightest spots off the bench tonight, hitting 3-5 from range and scoring 10 with 6 rebounds and 3 assists in 21 minutes. He's in a groove now...the Dorell we've been hoping to see. You wonder if he isn't Portland's Wilson Chandler already.
Meyers Leonard had a stellar night on the offensive end. A pair of three-pointers made the crowd delirious but 9 points doesn't really cover it. He made all kinds of correct decisions with the ball. I was surprised that the box score registered only 1 assist because it felt like he was in the middle of a few passing plays that turned out well. Apparently he wasn't the last guy in the passing chain, but that hardly matters. Tonight he was seamless with his teammates, a far cry from the disaster-plagued guy we saw last year. Whatever has clicked in his brain about this offense is now keeping a fairly steady rhythm. Defense was another story, but it was still a good night for Leonard.
Thomas Robinson went into a downswing. His energy wasn't focused and ended up unproductive. He grabbed 4 rebounds in 14 minutes but also committed 4 turnovers.
Steve Blake okey-doked Andre Miller down the baseline in priceless fashion for that layup we mentioned in the fourth quarter. He appeared to be more aggressive looking for his own shot tonight, which the Wizards were willing to give him. Blake is better when he mixes up the shots and passes a little.
CJ McCollum's big contribution was the 5th shot in that second-quarter three-point parade.
The Blazers now head out on a 4-game road swing that starts in Brooklyn on Monday.
Instant Recap with Post-Game reaction.
Bullets Forever will consider this a good opportunity, just missed.
Don't miss our In-Arena Report, coming shortly. It has everything you want to see and more.
Why not celebrate LaMarcus Aldridge's sacrifice with one of your own, helping underprivileged youth see LMA in person during Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns? It's easy to contribute tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. We're looking to send over 1000 kids this year. You can find all the details here.
--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge