ATLANTA — What a difference an All-Star makes.
Trail Blazers starting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge returned to the lineup, putting up 25 points and 16 rebounds in 32 minutes to lift the Trail Blazers to a 100-85 victory versus the Atlanta Hawks at Phillips Arena.
“Very important, just for our mental psyche, our confidence, everything,” said Aldridge of the win. “The standing with guys winning — Phoenix won, Dallas is back there — so I think it was overall just good for us.”
With the win, Portland moves to 46-27 on the season and 20-18 on the road while ending a three-game losing streak.
“He looked very good,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “We planned on playing him 32 minutes, I thought he made the most of the minutes he had. He rebounded the ball extremely well, got rebounds in a crowd, I like the way he took the ball to the paint. He competed inside, he didn’t look like he shied away from any of the contact, stroke looked good. Defensively, he was very locked into our gameplan.”
Aldridge had missed Portland’s last seven game with a lower back contusion, and though his return to the court wasn’t confirmed until Thursday morning’s shootaround, he looked as though he suffered no ill effects from the fall he took on March 12 versus the Spurs in San Antonio.
“The shots (to his back) didn’t bother me,” said Aldridge. “I got tight from going up and down. I think that’s definitely the most work I’ve done in two weeks, but we did things on the sideline to open it back up.”
With Aldridge back in the rotation, the Trail Blazers looked like a much more fluid team on both sides of the ball. The 6-11 forward shot an airball on his first attempt in nearly two weeks, but followed that up with a vicious block on Atlanta’s Elton Brand, a made 17-footer of a Nicolas Batum pass and got to the line in his first five minutes.
“I wasn’t winded, I was surprised,” said Aldridge. “They actually gave me time to workout and go up and down and do things like that. I thought that was big for my cardio tonight. I didn’t even get tired, really.”
Aldridge would go on to put up eight points, fives rebounds, a steal and a block in eight first-quarter minutes to help the Trail Blazers take a 22-16 lead into the second.
The Trail Blazers would follow up a quality first quarter with arguably their best offensive quarter of the road trip thus far in the second. Atlanta’s defense, playing shorthanded without Kyle Korver and Pero Antic, had to pick their poison after Aldridge’s hot start, which gave both Robin Lopez and Damian Lillard space they had not been afforded in recent games. Lopez finished the second with seven points and Lillard went 3 of 4 from the field and 2 of 2 from three for eight second-quarter points.
“There’s a lot of security in being able to throw (Aldridge) the ball in the block,” said Stotts. “The way were were playing before (without Aldridge) there was a lot of movement, it’s very fatiguing to constantly be driving and trying to push the pace. In pick and rolls he creates a problem so defenses have to make a decision how they want to guard the pick and roll with him and Mo or him and Dame or him and Nic. He gives us a lot of security at the offensive end.”
Portland shot 65 percent from the field in the second to outscore Atlanta by 10 in the quarter to take a 53-37 lead into the intermission.
But when you’re in the midst of a three-game losing streak, nothing comes easy for 48 minutes. The Hawks weren’t able to make up much ground in the third quarter, but managed to make a push early in the fourth to apply pressure to a team struggling to hold position in the Western Conference playoff race. Atlanta went on a 12-4 run, with 10 of those points coming from Lou Williams, to cut Portland’s lead to six with 8:10 to play in regulation. You could almost feel the nervousness back in Portland, as the Trail Blazers have struggled in the second half of the season to finish close games.
But rather than letting another game slip away, Portland would finish the game on an 18-9 run to pull away for a 15-point victory. Aldridge would score seven of those points late, including an and-1 finish off a Wesley Matthews dish with just under six minutes to play that put Portland up 11.
“I’m just trying to make it easier on everybody else,” said Aldridge. “I felt like we all made the right plays tonight. (Matthews) gave me a really good pass on that one. I tried to go to the basket because I had one play like that previously, I settled for the jumpshot. So that time I was trying to go to the basket, went up strong. I think just me being out there, trying to make reads, it helps everybody else make reads off of me.”
With Aldridge putting pressure on Atlanta’s defense, Lillard was freed up to take care of business on the perimeter. The second-year guard out of Weber State went 7 of 15 from the field and 4 of 9 from three to finish with 21 points while adding six rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes.
“We’re a whole different team with (Aldridge),” said Lillard. “He’s our best player. He brings balance to our team. We had an inside presence and we were able to play inside-out like we have been all year. He played well to have sat out for so long. I think, with him out there, we just got more quality shots.”
Aside from Lopez, Aldridge’s return also had a positive effect on Thomas Robinson, who played alongside Aldridge for much of the game and responded with 10 points on 4 of 4 shooting in just under 19 minutes.
“Because of LA’s minutes (restriction) I had to tweak the rotation, but I liked playing Thomas and LA together,” said Stotts. “I thought that worked well for us. Thomas, I thought, played a good energy game, made some good plays at both ends of the court. That’s what we need from him.”
Stotts also got an efficient game from backup point guard Mo Williams. Despite playing through a minor knee injury, Williams shot 3 of 6 from the field for eight points while dishing out a game-high 11 assists, with a number of those coming off alley-oops, in 25 minutes.
“I thought Mo, when he came into the game, he found a lot of things offensive,” said Stotts. “Found Robin on some rolls, pushed the pace, made his shots. He played a very good game, but when he came in, it seemed like the game changed a little bit.”
With the victory, Portland is now a game ahead of the Warriors for the fifth seed in the West and three games up on the Dallas Mavericks, who sit in ninth after losing Thursday night to the Clippers.
“The race is getting tight and we’ve got nine games left,” said Lillard. “We just need to finish out nine games strong and that’s all we need to focus on. Having a win, it gives us momentum to try to go get another one tomorrow. It’s refreshing because we had kind of … it was just losing. That energy, we was off a little bit just from losing games and other teams winning, the season coming down to an end. Having a win, I think that brings up our energy. It helps us mentally.”
With that boost of energy, the Trail Blazers head northwest to wrap up a five-game trip with against the Bulls in Chicago. Tipoff is scheduled for Friday at 5 PM.
Greetings podcast enthusiasts. Between CJ McCollum getting an extension and Moe Harkless signing a new deal, Portland’s roster for the start of the 2016-17 regular season is all but finalized. So it seemed like a good time to hit the studio with Joe Freeman of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com to record yet another edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this edition, we discuss the near-max extension for McCollum and the four-year, roughly $40 million contract for Harkless, which directions Terry Stotts might go in terms of starting lineups and minutes allocations, the news that both Al-Farouq Aminu and Festus Ezeli will forego playing for Nigeria at the 2016 Summer Olympics, give a quick rundown of the preseason schedule and answer your Twitter-submitted questions.
Last weekend, Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum and his older brother, Errick, were guests on ESPN’s SportsCenter to discuss, amongst other things, The Basketball Tournament, which is billed as a “open application, 5-on-5, single-elimination, winner-take-all basketball tournament” in which the winning team takes home $2 million in prize money. Errick’s team, Overseas Elite, won the tournament last year and are in the finals, which airs Tuesday at 4 PM Pacific on ESPN, again this year.
But the tournament wasn’t the only topic of conversation, as any time you get two brothers together, you’re contractually obligated to ask them which is mom’s favorite. One one had, CJ still lives with his mom, so you might assume he’s the got the No. 1 son ranking sewn up, but it sounds like Errick was the much better behaved child and mom’s tend to have long memories, so it sounds like it’s a bit of a tossup.
“CJ, he was a good kid,” said Errick, “he just liked to get into things. He was really physical. She couldn’t take him around any other kids or he would, like, get into little altercations with them because he just played too rough.”
Sounds about right.
On Thursday, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was a guest on The Doug Gottlieb Show on CBS Sports Radio. Over the 15 minute conversation, Stotts discusses LeBron James saying he would have been his pick for 2016 NBA Coach of the Year, Kevin Durant signing as a free agent with the Golden State Warriors, the notion of “super teams” in the NBA, having confidence in your players and his participation in the Men’s Wearhouse National Suit Drive.
You can listen to the entire interview here, though I’m transcribed a portion which you can read below…
On LeBron James saying Stotts should have been Coach of the Year:
“To be honest, it felt pretty good. I have a lot of respect obviously for LeBron, what he does and what he’s done in his career, but for him to come out and say that, it made me feel good.”
On Cleveland winning the NBA Finals after being down 3-1 to Golden State:
“Obviously it was historical. A lot of things went into it, but when a team can do that and to win two games on the road being down 3-1, it’s really remarkable. It just put an end to a historical season as it was with Golden State and what they did during the regular season, the way they came back against Oklahoma City and then for Cleveland to do that, it was just remarkable. I thought it was a remarkable season to begin with and it finished that way.”
On Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors:
“My first reaction was he earned the right to be a free agent. I know a lot of thought went into it and it wasn’t a decision that he took lightly. I know he took a lot of criticism for making that decision but I think he earned that right to make whatever decision he felt was best for him. I think it’s going to be interesting with Golden State. Obviously defending them is going to be a challenge because — we talked about versatility — they were already an extremely talented offensive team and he’s going to make them better. They’re going to be a different team than they were last year, they’re not going to have the big guys. When you lose Festus Ezeli, who is on our team now, and Andre Bogut and Maurice Speights, the look of their frontline is going to be different. But I think they could be just as good just because of what they’ll be able to do at the offensive end.”
His thoughts on “super teams” in the NBA:
“You know, I don’t know if it’s good or bad for the league. I’ve just kind of accepted that that’s the way things are. I know people have made comparisons when LeBron went to Miami and that was supposedly the first super team and they won two championships, but it’s not like there was a five year, seven year run dynasty. When you get out on the court, you still have to play the games. Obviously Golden State is going to be very good, but you’ve got to play an 82-game season, you’ve got to go through four series to win a championship. I think the league does thrive on star power, whether it’s star power within a team or having a team be a star. I don’t know, I think the league is doing extremely well, I think it’s extremely popular. I think this is just another story that people are going to be interested in.”
On having confidence in shooters like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum:
“I’m a big believer in confidence when shooting. It probably goes back to my freshman year in college when I didn’t know whether to shoot or (laughs) you know the phrase. But anyway, I’m a big believer in confidence and Allen and CJ are two different categories. CJ struggled with injuries his first two years and was trying to get incorporated into a roster that was winning 50 games and never really got into a rhythm. I think shooting is about rhythm and confidence. Same thing for AC, really, is that he did have opportunities to play in his first two years but he was playing behind Wes Matthews and Nic Batum and his opportunities on the court were limited. When you’re looking over your shoulder and trying not to make mistakes and putting pressure on (yourself) to make a shot, it’s difficult. I really give it to CJ and Allen, they were ready for this year and they were prepared for it, the opportunity was going to be there. But I think that a lot of players — and you know, you played — is that if the coach trusts me, I’m going to play better. Whether I trusted them or not their first two years, certainly their opportunity was there and I trusted them with the role that they were going to have.”
On his participation in the Men’s Wearhouse National Suit Drive:
“Every year what I do is I go through the closet and knowing that I’m going to get some suits in the fall, I go through and weed out the older ones. There’s certain ones that I do kind of have a special place in my heart for them, but other than that, I just take some of the older suits and the Men’s Wearhouse has a great program with the suit drive to give away suits to people who can use them. I’m kind of a bigger guy so hopefully there’s some big guys out there who are able to take advantage of them.”