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Aldridge-Nowitzki battle crucial in first-round series

'I just have to go out and do what I've done all season,' Blazer star says
by: GLENN JAMES LaMarcus Aldridge plows his way to the basket against Dirk Nowitzki in a regular-season game. The battle of power forwards will be critical to the outcome of the Trail Blazers' first-round playoff series with Dallas, which starts Saturday.

All sorts of factors will figure into the eventual outcome of the first-round best-of-seven playoff series between the Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks, beginning with Saturday's opener at American Airlines Center.

Coaches Nate McMillan and Rick Carlisle. Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews and Jason Terry and Jason Kidd. Offensive schemes. Defensive adjustments. Homecourt advantage.

Nothing will be any more important, though, than the production of LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki won't be defending Aldridge - that role will go to Dallas center Tyson Chandler. But Aldridge will guard Nowitzki, and the performance of the ringleaders of the respective teams will go a long way toward deciding which will advance to the next round.

Aldridge wasn't selected to the All-Star Game, but he had an All-Star-caliber season, finishing 14th in the NBA in both scoring (21.8) and rebounding (8.8), shooting .500 from the field. The Blazers' 6-11 power forward, 26, averaged 39.6 minutes, playing more than anyone in the league except Golden State's Monta Ellis.

'LaMarcus carried our team this season,' Portland assistant coach Bill Bayno says.

Nowitzki, meanwhile, is an All-Star Game fixture, a 10-time selection to the mid-season classic and a future Hall-of-Famer. The 7-foot power forward, 32, was 10th in the league in scoring this season (23.0) and averaged 7.0 rebounds. He was the game's best-shooting big man, firing at a .517 clip from the field, .393 from 3-point range and .892 from the foul line.

Aldridge was outstanding his Portland's four meetings with Dallas this season, averaging 27.8 points and 9.0 rebounds while shooting .516 from the field. Nowitzki's numbers (21.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, .525 shooting) were more modest, but he missed the first meeting, an 84-81 Dallas win on Jan. 4, and played 36 minutes a game in the series compared to Aldridge's 40.5.

Aldridge is modest about his success against the Mavericks, at first deflecting the question, then answering, 'I don't know what it was. I just played well. Hopefully I can play well in the series, too.'

There's no question the matchup with Dallas is particularly meaningful for Aldridge, who grew up in the city and has a home there in the offseason. It's a chance to spend a little time with friends and family, especially his mother, Georgia, who is battling the effects of breast cancer.

'She's excited,' Aldridge says. 'She said she wanted us to play Dallas, and now we're there.'

Georgia, Aldridge says, 'is doing better. She is going through radiation treatments, so she can't fly, but she'll be able to go to the games in Dallas.'

Aldridge is downplaying the significance of facing the team he favored as a youngster.

'I'm happy to go home, but (it's a) tough team, you know?' he says. 'I don't feel any (playoff) team in the West is easy to beat. We'll just have to go into Dallas and try to win.'

Many national pundits are predicting that the Blazers, the sixth seed in the Western Conference, will knock off the No. 3 Mavericks. The Dallas players say they are embracing an underdog role.

'We didn't want anybody,' Aldridge says. 'We didn't say, 'Let's get them' (as a first-round opponent). They're good. They started out one of the hottest teams in the NBA. How are they underdogs? We didn't say none of that stuff.

'That's just motivation for them. It's easy to say a team can be upset. That may be what they're saying, but we still have to go out and play.'

Last year, Portland also entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the West and beat No. 3 seed Phoenix in the opener. The Suns rallied to take the series 4-2.

'I learned that every game is important,' Aldridge says. 'Never get comfortable. We won the first game, got kind of excited about it and they took it right back.

'Always stay hungry. If you win one, don't think about it no more. Start all over.'

Aldridge was Portland's No. 1 option in that series by default. Brandon Roy injured his knee late in the season and, though he came back for the final four games of the series, wasn't at the top of his game. Aldridge averaged 19.0 points and 6.0 rebounds in the series, but shot only .430 and struggled against Phoenix double-teams.

'Last year, he inherited that role due to Brandon's injury,' Portland coach Nate McMillan says. 'All of a sudden, boom, it was placed on him.'

This season, Aldridge has been the Blazers' bread-and-butter player most of the way - particularly since Dec. 15, when Roy went down to injury and was out for two months.

'He will be going into the playoffs with a role he has had all year,' McMillan says.

When he faces the double-team, Aldridge will be ready for it.

'I've been in this position all year,' he says. 'It's the first time I've kind of been the go-to guy. Last year, we lost Brandon, so I was trying to figure it out how to get me the ball. This year, we've played a whole season like this.'

Bayno says Aldridge has evolved every year in providing leadership, but never more than this season.

'He was unbelievable stepping up and leading this team, becoming the go-to guy on the fly, which is hard to do,' Bayno says. 'That's why the all-star snub was such a joke. He was double-teamed every night, and he did a beautiful job (hurting opponents) with the pass. When they didn't double him, he did it with his shot. He did everything.

'Put Kevin Love on our team, we're not where we are. Put Blake Griffin on our team, we're not where we are. Those two guys never command a double-team. That's a huge thing. When they double LaMarcus, it allows everybody else to get better. When they didn't double him, he'd score 40 points, not to mention he was a terror on the boards.'

Aldridge, though, is downplaying his significance in the series.

'I don't put pressure on myself, and I'm harder on myself than anyone else could be,' he says. 'I just have to go out and do what I've done all season, just try to be consistent.'

McMillan is employing the same philosophy.

'It's Portland and Dallas, not just Dirk and L.A.,' the Blazer coach says. 'It's not just those two guys. It's team against team.'

Aldridge holds a healthy dose of respect for Nowitzki, however.

'He's a great player,' Aldridge says. 'He takes some of the toughest shots in the league, and he makes them consistently. He's a really tough guard. He plays an unorthodox game. He takes a lot of one-legged shots. He's very crafty getting to the basket.

'I'll do what I can to hold him down, but it's not a one-man job. It's team defense against him. Everyone has to join in weak side and help out.'

In his fifth season, Aldridge has never advanced beyond the first round. The time is now, he says.

'Both teams won twice (during the regular season) on the homecourt,' he says. 'Both teams are capable of winning. It's going to be a hardfought series. Bring your hard hats, and let's go play.'