The Blazers have raced out to a 31-11 record in the rugged Western Conference on the strength of their offense, particularly their three-point shooting. Portland came into Thursday ranked first in the league in made three-pointers, second in both three-point attempts and shooting percentage.
But the threes weren't falling against Denver—Portland shot just 4-for-18 from downtown—so the Blazers needed to go inside to win. They needed to go to LaMarcus Aldridge.
And the power forward delivered, as he has so many times for the Blazers in 2013-14. Aldridge scored 15 of his career-high 44 points in the final frame.
Should we be surprised? Absolutely not. LaMarcus Aldridge didn't just appear out of thin air in 2013-14. If he makes the 2014 All-Star team—and he looks like a shoe-in to do so—it will mark his third consecutive appearance. The guy has been good for a while.
So why all the sudden hoopla? Why is Aldridge on everybody's shortlist for MVP? Probably for the same reason his Blazers have been getting more and more appearances on national television: They're good now. Really good. And fans like to talk about really good teams.
Believe it or not, Aldridge isn't having a breakout season. He broke out a long time ago. What he is having is a bounce-back season, a return to form after a disappointing 2012-13.
Back to Normal
By the advanced metrics—player efficiency rating and win shares per 48 minutes—Aldridge's 2013-14 campaign hasn't been different from his 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.
But last season was a disappointment, both for Aldridge and the Blazers. Though he made his second consecutive All-Star Game, his Blazers faltered down the stretch, losing 21 of their 29 games after the All-Star Break, including a season-ending 13-game losing streak.
After the season, Aldridge spoke to Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears to deny rumors that he had asked to be traded. As relayed by Pro Basketball Talk's Scott Schroeder: “I wasn’t ready to make a move yet,” Aldridge told Spears. “I was just frustrated in the moment. I haven’t given (Portland GM) Neil (Olshey) a chance yet.”
Olshey didn't make any splashy moves in the offseason; instead, he added underrated center Robin Lopez to add to Portland's core of Aldridge, reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. But sometimes the best moves are the ones you don't make.
Portland's young backcourt has grown by leaps and bounds this season. Lillard has continued the momentum of his rookie season, while both Batum and Matthews are having career years. Meanwhile, the under-the-radar signing of Lopez has provided a defensive backbone for Portland's starting lineup.
And so Aldridge is once again playing like an All-Star. Is he making his teammates better, or are they making him better? Probably a little of both.
Shooting Isn't What Makes Aldridge Special
While LaMarcus Aldridge possesses one of the most gorgeous mid-range shooting strokes in the game, he is not a particularly efficient shooter.
Coming into Thursday's game against Denver, Aldridge's 47.6 field-goal percentage ranked 35th among the 70 qualified forwards and centers, according to Basketball Reference.
And Thursday night was no exception. Aldridge scored his 44 points on 15-of-29 shooting, all of those attempts coming within the three-point arc. Of the 20 40-point, single-game performances this season, Aldridge's 51.7 two-point shooting percentage placed him only 16th. In contrast, his teammate, Damian Lillard, made 54.5 percent of his two-point shots in his 41-point game on Jan. 7.
Whenever Aldridge didn't have the ball in that fourth quarter you could find him under the basket, fighting for position with Denver bigs Timofey Mozgov and J.J. Hickson, Aldridge's former Portland teammate. Aldridge didn't shoot particularly well in the fourth—just 2-for-5—but he made up for it by crashing the boards, drawing fouls and hitting 11 of his 14 free-throw attempts.
Aldridge is far more than a scorer. He is ranked in the top five in the NBA in total rebounds. And on an evening when Portland wasn't getting it done on the perimeter, Aldridge bullied the Blazers to victory.
After the win, Aldridge brushed aside any talk that he scored 44 points to send a message to those who didn't pick him to start the All-Star Game, per NBA.com's Anne M. Peterson: "It was nothing about that. We lost two games and we needed this win."
Aldridge doesn't need the All-Star Game to validate his greatness; he's been there, done that. He's looking for wins, and he's making sure that his team gets as many as possible.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.