Trailing by 11 points at halftime, it would have been easy for the Portland Trail Blazers to fold.
Kevin Durant was flexing his muscles, head coach Terry Stotts had drawn a technical foul, and the Thunder were looking like world-beaters in their 59-point first half.
But the Blazers didn't concede, thanks to the play of LaMarcus Aldridge.
On a night when Aldridge dropped in a season-high 38 points to go with 13 rebounds and five assists, the Blazers defeated the Thunder, 111-104, to improve to a Western Conference-best 16-3.
"I don't know if I have the words, to be honest," Stotts said of Aldridge's night, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN). "Offensively, obviously 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 him tonight."
According to Basketball-Reference (h/t to ESPN's Kevin Pelton), Wednesday night marked just the third time in his career that Aldridge compiled more than 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a single game.
LaMarcus Aldridge is only the third Trail Blazer with 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in a game since 1985 (Drexler-2, Randolph).— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) December 5, 2013
With the Blazers searching for answers entering the second half, Aldridge went to work, converting on eight of nine shots for 16 points in the third quarter alone.
Behind Aldridge's outburst, the Blazers outscored the Thunder by 14 in the third and didn't look back. The 6'11" big man topped 30 points nine times in 2012-13, and he's already done so twice in the Blazers' first 19 games.
However, the fact that the Blazers forward has posted big numbers in spades over Portland's first 19 games lends credence to the sentiment that he can be grouped among LeBron James, Chris Paul and Paul George as an MVP candidate.
An MVP chant erupted at the Moda Center as LA made 2 FTs.— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) December 5, 2013
He's been that good.
LaMarcus Aldridge is the first NBA player with at least 38 points and 13 rebounds in a game this season.— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) December 5, 2013
Entering Wednesday night, Aldridge ranked eighth overall in scoring, averaging 22.7 points on 46.5 percent shooting. Interestingly enough, the only two players with better field-goal percentages who ranked among the top eight in scoring were George and James.
That's elite company.
While conventional wisdom regarding advanced statistics and analytics tell us that three-pointers and layups are the most efficient shots, Aldridge's play tends to tell us otherwise.
Although many of his peers are getting it done with a unique blend of size, speed and shot selection, Aldridge has kept things simple. Mid-range jumpers have become the norm, and boy have they been pretty. According to NBA.com, 28.8 percent of Aldridge's shots have come between eight and 16 feet, while a shade over 30 percent have come within the restricted area.
With a silky fadeaway jumper and a dynamic pick-and-roll partner in Damian Lillard, Aldridge has drawn comparisons to some of the game's most skilled shot-makers with the way he so effortlessly puts the ball in the basket.
There have been so many iffy, overstretched Dirk comparisons over the years, but Aldridge at this level might be the first truly valid comp.— Rob Mahoney (@RobMahoney) December 5, 2013
And it's not just Aldridge who's proving he's for real.
The Blazers are doing so, too.
Following up a victory over the Eastern Conference-best Indiana Pacers with a win over the Thunder, the Blazers can be doubted no longer.
Portland ranks second in the NBA with a record of 16-3, including a 3-0 mark against other teams in the top five (IND, SA, OKC).— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) December 5, 2013
Rip City just threw its coat into the ring.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) December 5, 2013
Portland's 16-3 start is tied for the second-best in franchise history behind only the 1990-91 and 1977-78 Blazers.
How did those two teams fare, you ask? The 1990-91 Blazers finished with a gaudy league-best record of 63-19 before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The 1977-78 Blazers ultimately lost in the Western Conference semifinals, but also boasted a league-best record of 58-24 at season's end.
The @trailblazers have won 14 of 15, improve to 16-3, their best start since 1990-91 (18-1). That was the best team in franchise history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 5, 2013
With those historical figures in mind, it's clear that this year's iteration of the Blazers is capable of succeeding well beyond the regular season.
So while Portland may not boast flashy superstars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Stotts has installed an offensive system that maximizes all of its unique parts—one that's produced the league's third-best offensive rating (108.1) to date, according to NBA.com's stats database.
And with LaMarcus Aldridge present to act as the fulcrum of the league's newest offensive sensation, there's no telling how far this team will be able to go in what's proven to be a very irregular season.