For the first two quarters, it was Dwight Howard who had the basketball-viewing universe believing in superstar resurrections—devastating help defense, ferocious slams delivered beyond breathable air, the look of a god with a game to match.
Then the second half happened and LaMarcus Aldridge—already the author of 69 points in three playoff halves—just kept coming.
Wielding a quiver of judicious jumpers, graceful turnarounds and bare-knuckle drives, Aldridge spurred his Portland Trail Blazers to a 112-105 Game 2 win over the Houston Rockets Wednesday night, after which the focus narrowed back down to the bare brilliance of what the Rose City's star had just accomplished.
After charting a career-high and franchise playoff record 46 points in Portland’s 122-120 overtime win on Sunday, Aldridge offered up an encore for the ages Wednesday night, finishing with 43 points on 18-of-28 shooting to go along with eight rebounds.
The win gives the Blazers a commanding 2-0 series lead heading into what could be a series sweep this weekend, when Portland will play host to games 3 and 4 and attempt to punch an early ticket to the Western Conference Semifinals.
How the Blazers got here—up two-love on one of the league’s steadiest two-way teams—is a question ripe for reasoned analysis.
Chief among the stabs-at-it: the Rockets’ suddenly stagnant offense; head coach Kevin McHale’s head-scratching decisions (going to Dwight down low trailing by six and with less than a minute remaining, for instance); and an offensive outburst from Portland harkening to, well, the regular-season Houston Rockets.
Really, the answer is much simpler than that: Terry Stotts is coaching the best player on the floor, bar none.
Aldridge’s encore—set as it was to the score of a mother’s in-house cheers—was no anomaly. If anything, it was the logical next step in the 28-year-old’s piecemeal journey from one-and-done prodigy to basketball project to what looks with each passing game like a perennial All-Star in the making.
A perfect primrose path it was not, however, as Aldridge confided in a recent interview with The Oregonian’s Jason Quick. In it, the bright-smiled forward detailed his struggles with a stutter, the burden of heightened expectations and how the loss of Brandon Roy—the Blazers’ king apparent before a series of knee injuries cruelly cut him down in his prime—affected his growth to becoming a franchise cornerstone.
It’s just one of those things I got used to. I mean, I probably shouldn’t have gotten used to it, but it motivated me to work hard every summer and be better every year and show Portland that they still had a really good player. Because I felt like once we lost Brandon, everybody thought we were done. But I wanted to show that I was still here, and you could believe in me, too.
In Damian Lillard, Portland found a star who, not unlike Roy, was cut straight from NBA central casting: ferocious game, flashy handle and camera-ready smile in the seemingly perfect package of a bucket-getting point guard.
Aldridge, on the other hand, screams another time entirely—if screaming weren’t so anathema to that era, of course. In LMA, we get perhaps the game’s purist possible Ode to the Big Man.
Stat-heads would scoff at the shot selection, if it weren’t so damn efficient. Bob McAdoo with a more frightening frame. Colossal case in point: tonight’s performance.
The plods towards the paint—plotted, it sometimes seems, by telegraphs sent to himself—scream early-1990s Patrick Ewing.
Aldridge is the kind of player that makes your NBA-estranged uncle pull you aside at Thanksgiving dinner: “Now Aldridge? That guy’s game I like!”
Which is why LMA’s blessing—a skill set near unrivaled in terms of power-forward fundamentals—is also his curse. Between Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, the position of power forward has its contemporary cannon covered. After a while, there’s only so much love to spare for floor-bound 4s.
Perfect, then, that a Portland advance would mean a showdown with one of the latter two—a chance for Aldridge to formally seize the positional mantle.
For now, the focus remains on upending a Houston team that appeared, at various points throughout the season, like a possible title contender. After decimating Omer Asik, Aldridge might soon find himself faced with an altogether more problematic prospect: the attention of Dwight Howard.
Indeed, for as potent as Howard was Wednesday night, the stagnation that seized Houston’s offense—not a result of Howard’s play, per se, but not necessarily coincidence—would likely force McHale to get back to basics. Namely, putting James Harden in more pick and rolls, spreading the floor, and hoping for a better three-point clip than the 11-of-51 his troops have managed thus far.
That would demand Howard focus more of his efforts on stopping Aldridge—something a prime-saddled Bill Russell might be helpless to do, at this point.
Whoever winds up with the short straw, Houston is bound to do everything in its power to force someone other than Aldridge to do Portland’s sweep-driven bidding.
Only, Aldridge is bound to have a little something extra in his corner. Specifically, scores of hysterical Moda Center fans looking to spur their Blazers beyond the opening round for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.
Back then it was Rasheed Wallace—loud, lewd, as quick with the mouth as he was with a jumper—that played the angry archetype for Portland’s “Jail Blazers” image.
LaMarcus Aldridge? His might be a quieter countenance. But so long as those takes and turnarounds keep tunneling net and channeling MJ, he can let the glory-starved screams of 20,000 do the talking for him.