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.
It’s summer time in Portland (or at least, it’s supposed to be), which means there’s no lack of street fairs, farmers markets, beerfests and art walks to attend. Anyone who frequents such events knows how hard it can be to get from Point A to Point B when there’s thousands of people in between.
But Damian Lillard has you covered. In a new adidas short entitled “Creating Clutch,” the 6-3 point guard out of Weber State traverses a busy street market in China (wearing the “PDX Carpet” colorway of the D Lillard 2, if I’m not mistaken) using an array of moves that you can incorporate into your own crowd-surfing…
In “Creating Clutch,” Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard shows us there is no such thing as downtime if you want to be one of the best clutch players in the NBA. A crowded street market in China during his recent Summer tour became his court, the ultimate opportunity to test his creativity and put his skills to the test.
With Portland’s foray into free agency now complete, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net/TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studio to record another edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
In this almost all Twitter-submitted questions edition, we discuss the signings of Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli and Meyers Leonard, the decision to match the offer the Brooklyn Nets extended to Allen Crabbe, how the additions and returns could change lineups going forward and the notion that the Trail Blazers need to make a trade. There’s also some hot Pokemon Go and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” talk to start the show, so you might want prepare yourself to fast-forward through the first few minutes.
UPDATE: The team has officially announced that they have matched the Nets’ offer sheet to Allen Crabbe, though a “formal announcement” and Crabbe actually signing the contract will not occur until later in the week.
After finishing up their pursuit of new free agents, the Trail Blazers have wasted little time in turning their attention to the free agents on their own roster. After reportedly signing restricted free agent power forward Meyers Leonard to a four-year deal, the Trail Blazers, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, have matched the four-year, $75 million offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets tendered to third-year guard/forward Allen Crabbe, ensuring that the former Cal Bear will be back in Portland next season…
The Portland Trail Blazers have matched Allen Crabbe’s four-year, $75M offer sheet with Brooklyn, league source tells @TheVertical.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 10, 2016
Nets bid on Crabbe has been thwarted — and Crabbe returns to Blazers on four-year, $75M contract. Now, Nets wait on Tyler Johnson sheet.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 10, 2016
The message out of Portland ownership and management is clear: Blazers trying to win this year and beyond — loading up on this roster.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 10, 2016
As is often the case when it comes to restricted free agents, the Nets offer to Crabbe, who has averaged 7.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game through three season, was considerably larger than many assumed the 6-6 wing would receive in an effort to discourage the Trail Blazers from matching. And after the Trail Blazers signed free agent guard/forward Evan Turner to a four-year deal, some assumed that combined with the size of the Nets offer might result in Trail Blazers letting Crabbe walk.
But that would not be the case. Crabbe has been a favorite of the front office and coaching staff since the team acquired former Pac-12 Player of the Year via trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2012 Draft. And though he played sparingly in his first two seasons, he saw his minutes increase dramatically in 2015-16, as he appeared in 81 games and responded with averages of 10.8 points on 44 percent shooting and 39 percent shooting from three, 2.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists while serving as one of the team’s best perimeter defenders.
There were rumors that outside of the money and years, Crabbe, who has typically come off the bench for the Trail Blazers, was intrigued by the opportunity to start and play a larger role with the Nets. But for his part, Crabbe seemed more than satisfied that he would be returning to Portland…
— Allen Crabbe (@allencrabbe) July 10, 2016
With Crabbe now signed, forward Maurice Harkless is the last Blazer still available on the free agent market. Like Crabbe, Harkless is a restricted free agent, which gives the Trail Blazers the right to match any offer he receives from another team. It is also possible for the Trail Blazers to sign Harkless even if he doesn’t receive an offer sheet from another team, as they have reportedly did Sunday with restricted free agent power forward Meyers Leonard.