LaMarcus' Aldridge's otherworldly 46-point, 18-rebound effort in the Portland Trail Blazers' Game 1 victory over the Houston Rockets was about more than setting fire to the narrative that Rip City was going to be an easy out.
It was about the NBA's least heralded superstar announcing his greatness in a way nobody could ignore.
Running down Aldridge's regular-season numbers proves he's been among the league's elite for a while. His 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game were both career highs. He made his third consecutive All-Star team. He posted a PER above 20 for the fourth year in a row, per Basketball-Reference.com.
You get the idea.
Aldridge also functioned as the focal point of one of the NBA's most effective offensive attacks, despite working primarily from the mid-range area—forbidden real estate in today's efficiency-driven league.
This isn't about Aldridge's numbers, though. Whatever the fuzzy "superstar" label means, we know statistics are only part of the necessary credentials.
In Game 1, Portland's largely ignored big man also proved he's got all the intangibles a true superstar needs.
You can't be a superstar unless you hit a different level when it counts. I guess we can check that requirement off the list after Aldridge's razor-sharp focus in Game 1.
“He really brought it,” Damian Lillard told Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com "You could tell that he was on a mission. I haven’t seen him in that way before.”
There's an element of revisionist history whenever somebody claims to have seen signs of a breakout before it happened. We build these narratives around what took place in the games, which means it's often fair to take quotes like Lillard's with a grain of salt. If Portland had lost, we probably never would have heard it.
But Lillard is an intensely reserved, quiet and even somewhat media-averse (Foot Locker commercials notwithstanding), so it's not like he's floating sound bites for the sake of attention.
Lillard's not about quantity when it comes to talking, so we should appreciate the quality of what he's saying.
He saw something in Aldridge, something that tends to show up in most superstars when the stakes are highest. Everybody gets up for playoff games, but Aldridge was dialed in to an unusual degree before tipoff.
That's superstar stuff.
Aldridge wants personal recognition, probably because he hasn't gotten as much as he's deserved over the years. Playing out West for a team not named the Lakers is a great way to get overlooked by most of the basketball-viewing public.
Despite the drive for a little individual acknowledgment, Aldridge has a real knack for saying the right things about team success.
I like that out of the 12, 50-win seasons (in Portland history), I am part of three of them. I love being tied to winning things. That’s big for me...(Those records) are things I love and look forward to, but I like winning. I feel like great players are always tied to winning. Lots of guys have scored points, but only certain guys have won and scored points.
Even though he burst into the national consciousness with his ridiculous stat line against the Rockets, Aldridge is probably happier about his team notching a win.
We love to idealize athletes, and we always hope they fulfill the unrealistically selfless expectations we impose on them. Aldridge might be the rare guy who measures up.
As further proof, consider his willingness to share the spotlight.
After fouling out on an illegal screen in overtime, Aldridge was understandably upset. He could have reached the 50-point mark in a playoff game, which would have added to his banner day. But he was most concerned with the Blazers finishing the job—no matter who got the credit.
It's a rare superstar who'll use the moments following a disqualification to empower a teammate rather than fire off death stares at officials. Aldridge did exactly that on Monday.
Good luck envisioning the Carmelo Anthonys of the world doing something similar.
Aldridge's play and overall demeanor this season has marked him as a superstar. Any doubts about that should have disappeared after such a stellar Game 1 effort against Houston.
Apparently unwilling to settle for dominating the present, Aldridge also seems to understand how important it will be for his legacy to tie himself to one franchise for the long haul. After eight years in Portland, he's nothing less than a civic symbol.
Lillard has the "next great thing" label because guards are more exciting, marketable and relatable. But it's Aldridge who has carved out a place in Blazers lore.
Per Quick, he understands the value of becoming a lasting franchise cornerstone:
In other words, if Aldridge decided to re-sign with the Blazers, there’s a very good chance he could end up holding every major career mark in franchise history.
Will that play a factor in his decision to re-up with Portland?
“It will,’’ Aldridge said. “But I will cross that bridge when I get there. But I think it will.’’
Aldridge will be an unrestricted free agent after next season, and if he decides to stick with the Blazers, he'll have a chance to become the most decorated player in the organization's illustrious history.
If he makes Rip City his home for the foreseeable future, Aldridge will be inextricably woven into the fabric of Blazers basketball.
Remember, Drexler left to chase a title in Houston. Bill Walton was only in town for a heartbeat. And Brandon Roy succumbed to injury. The top spot on Portland's pantheon is up for grabs.
As much as any 46-point game or All-Star season, a lasting legacy with a single franchise will make it impossible to overlook Aldridge's superstar status.