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.