Aldridge was his usual, sensational self. He scored a team-high 32 points, ripped down 10 rebounds and dished out four assists—all while reeling from the effects of having his wisdom teeth removed on Sunday.
"I've had nothing but soup for the last four days," Aldridge told Anne M. Peterson of the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports). "So I was a little worried about my energy levels."
To the naked eye, his energy levels looked just fine, perhaps even good enough to solidify his standing as arguably the best power forward in basketball right now—if not one of the top contenders for league MVP honors.
For a Dallas native and Texas Longhorns alum like Aldridge, it's only fitting that his candidacy for the NBA's top individual prize so closely mirrors that which elevates college football players into the Heisman Trophy race year after year.
At the foundation of Aldridge's campaign are impressive standard stats. He ranks in the top eight in both scoring (23.4) and rebounding (11). He's also sixth among power forwards in assists at 2.9 per game.
Just as importantly, Aldridge is 12th in the league and tops at his position with 37.2 minutes per game. In other words, he plays a ton of minutes for his team.
And when he doesn't, the Blazers suffer. Absence can and often does play a part in major awards voting, and it certainly should here. When Aldridge is on the court, Portland bests its opposition by 10.5 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, the Blazers are outscored by 8.9 points per 100 possessions.
For those keeping score at home, that's a win of 19.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That disparity was on display on Thursday night. Aldridge left the game with his fourth foul at the 9:25 mark of the third quarter, immediately after which the Clips scored eight straight points to cut a 10-point deficit down to two.
In one sense, that drop-off speaks to the Blazers' lack of depth at power forward. With Aldridge out, coach Terry Stotts had to turn to second-year stiff Meyers Leonard, who, to his credit, picked up seven caroms during his 13-minute stint.
But more than anything, the fact that Portland tends to struggle without Aldridge points to his central importance on this team. He's the Blazers' rock, their go-to guy, their in-his-prime franchise cornerstone. He's the one around whom their entire operation is orchestrated.
His unparalleled ability to knock down mid-range jumpers opens up a superb pick-and-pop game with Damian Lillard. His footwork and savvy in the low post sucks in defenders, and his vision allows him to hit shooters like Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, the latter of whom hit the game-tying three toward the end of the fourth quarter.
That three came off a pass and a screen from Aldridge, no less.
And like any Heisman or MVP candidate, No. 12 does his best work in the biggest games, under the brightest lights, against the best competition.
- He went for 30-21-3 with five combined blocks and steals during a steely November road win over the Golden State Warriors, opposite Andrew Bogut and David Lee.
- He pounded Pau Gasol for 27 points, nine rebounds and three assists one night, then torched the Indiana Pacers' vaunted defense for 28-10-3 the very next.
- Two days later, he dropped a season-high 38 points along with 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals to push Portland past the Oklahoma City Thunder, arguably the best team in the West.
- And who could forget the way he abused Dwight Howard for 31 points, 25 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals on TNT just two weeks ago?
As far as crunch time is concerned, few post players can compare to what Aldridge has done for his team. He hit a crucial bucket during the final minute of regulation and scored seven points more in overtime.
According to NBA.com, only Dirk Nowitzki and Al Horford have outscored Aldridge among power forwards in crunch time, and only Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews have better plus-minus ratings during those crucial minutes this season.
It's no wonder that Portland owns the best record in basketball, which is another crucial element to Aldridge's Heisman-like MVP resume. Being the best player on the best team has to count for something, doesn't it?
To be sure, Aldridge wasn't necessarily the best guy going in Rip City on this night. Blake Griffin abused the Blazers' front line for 35 points and 11 rebounds. Chris Paul single-handedly kept the Clips in the game with his 34 points, 16 assists and six steals.
Aldridge, for his part, wasn't exactly a picture of perfection. He put himself in foul trouble early in the third and needed 31 shots to rack up his 32 points. As he told Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver:
"With 31 shots, I think anybody can find a groove." -- LaMarcus Aldridge on scoring 32 points vs. Clippers after 2 previous games under 20— Ben Golliver (@blazersedge) December 27, 2013
As impressive as all of this is, MVPs aren't decided in November and December. They're merely sculpted in the NBA's early months, before the winds of winter and the saplings of spring bring about greater clarity across the basketball landscape.
Aldridge has done remarkably well to put himself in position for the honor, what with Paul George breaking out for the Pacers, Kevin Durant having another sensational season for the Thunder, Chris Paul carrying the Clippers and LeBron James once again shattering precedent on the hardwood.
Who's your pick for MVP so far?
The 28-year-old will see James' Miami Heat on Saturday before finishing out the calendar year against an up-and-comer (Anthony Davis) and an established runner-up (Kevin Durant). He'll be challenged nearly every night out West, where All-Star-caliber bigs like Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Zach Randolph (to name but a handful) reside en masse.
So far, Aldridge has answered the bell and established himself as arguably the West's best forward. That in itself should give him good enough marks to be considered a bona fide MVP prospect.
Now comes the real test: Keep the Blazers among the league's elite during the weeks and months ahead, until he finally has a chance to play for a passing grade in the postseason.
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