By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
CHICAGO – LaMarcus Aldridge realized early that it wasn’t going to be his night offensively.
“My first shot, I took it quick but I saw Bulls coming baseline,” the Portland Trail Blazers All-Star power forward said. “And I remembered [in Portland in November] they doubled me the whole game. I’d had some good games versus them in my past, so I felt like they wanted to take me out. So I knew early I was going to try to be more active defensively.”
What mattered more to Aldridge was that it was going to be his night at all. He had missed seven consecutive games with a bruised lower back prior to Thursday, then got busy against the Hawks in Atlanta for 25 points, 16 rebounds and 32 minutes. The Blazers won, pulling up ever so slightly in what had been a nosedive (3-4 without Aldridge, nine losses in 15 games overall).
This game against Chicago, at the end of their five-game Eastern trip, was no time to start plummeting again.
“As long as I woke up and I could walk, I was going to play,” Aldridge said.
This wasn’t one for the portfolio – five points, 2-for-10 shooting – at the offensive end but he represented well on defense. Aldridge grabbed 13 defensive boards and had four steals, clogging up things inside against a Bulls team that was no threat outside (3-for-17 from the 3-point line).
And frankly, Aldridge’s mere threat, misfiring or not, drew extra defenders often enough to free up other Portland shooters. Free up and energize even. Hey, LaMarcus is in passing mode!
“They get more energy, and they get more happy of course,” Aldridge said after the Blazers hit 10 of their 22 attempts from the arc. “When teams double-team me, I feel like guys pull over to the ball faster, I think guys are more locked in. When I have the ball normally, I’m going 1-on-1 and I’m always shooting it. But I feel like tonight, my teammates were more engaged.”
Better now than never. Portland’s struggles over the past 10 weeks have been well-documented, notably by our guys Fran Blinebury and Sekou Smith here and here in the past few days alone. The Blazers’ freefall was all the rage as a media topic, certainly in Portland, and even though the players and coaches were on the road, they couldn’t escape it.
“Look, we all know where things are in the standings and the playoffs,” coach Terry Stotts said after a solid, assertive 91-74 victory at United Center. “Every game is critical. We let a couple get away on this trip but I didn’t have to say anything – the team knows where we are and what we need to do.”
Getting Aldridge back was their top priority – a big no-duh, frankly – because life without him was a double-whammy: the Blazers lost his production and opponents felt freshly enthused, eager to test Portland’s vulnerability.
But there was more, perhaps some unconscious acknowledgement that, with or without their big guy, they weren’t the same team that had blitzed the league in the first two months. “Maybe not sustainable,” Aldridge said of the swift start.
Every team has lulls, but the Blazers’ looked more like doubts.
“Other than us getting our best player back – which changes everything – our urgency has gone up after the loss in Orlando [Tuesday],” point guard Damian Lillard said. “You realize, ‘All right, it’s time to turn it around right now. We can’t wait. We can’t have one of these lackadaisical efforts.’ The last two games we’ve really defended and done everything together.”
The unity Portland has flexed at its best was there particularly on defense, where having the other man’s back is king.
“I think the biggest example I can give you,” Lillard said, “is how consistent we were [against the Bulls] chasing over ball screens and communicating and pushing the ball up and moving the ball. Just everything the coaches are telling us and constantly on us about, we’ve been able to execute those things on the floor consistently.
“We were really missing that over that tough stretch.”
Aldridge made sure not to rush back, lest his back pains reoccur and he miss more time even closer to the playoffs. The Blazers are 7-5 without him this season, 40-22 when he plays. They locked up a winning record on the road in 2013-14 (21-18 now) and are 12-7 on the tail end of back-to-backs.
Going through the hard times – with no guarantees they’re gone, of course – did put a chip back on the Blazers’ shoulders, if that’s any help.
“I think we’re at our best,” Lillard said, “when everybody starts to doubt us and says, ‘Oh, they might not be in the playoffs. They’re falling off.’ That’s when we come together. We want to prove people wrong.”