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Blazer fans love L.A. in victory over Thunder

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Robin Lopez (right) and LaMarcus Aldridge share congratulations after a play in the Trail Blazers' victory over Oklahoma City on Wednesday night at Moda Center.With 24.3 seconds left, the Trail Blazers ahead of Oklahoma City 108-104 and LaMarcus Aldridge at the foul line for a pair Wednesday night at the Moda Center, the fans serenaded the city's biggest sports star with chants of "M-V-P!"

"Finally," teammate Nicolas Batum said with a smile. "He deserved that."

Portland has had only one most valuable player award winner in its 44-year NBA history -- Bill Walton in 1977-78.

It's premature to say Aldridge is in line this season, with the regular season less than a quarter of the way finished. But the 28-year-old veteran is making an early case for himself to be on the short list of MVP candidates.

The 6-11 Aldridge scored a season-high 38 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished five assists in leading the Blazers to a 111-104 win over the team many predicted would represent the Western Conference in the NBA finals next June.

Asked to describe Aldridge's performance, coach Terry Stotts paused to gather his thoughts.

"I don't know if I have the words," Stotts said finally. "I liked his toughness, I liked his leadership, I liked his competitive fire. As much as he played very well, it was the intangibles I really appreciated from him tonight."

Aldridge scored 26 points in the second half as Portland (16-3) rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit to end an eight-game winning streak for the Thunder (13-4) and secure the best record in the Western Conference.

The two-time All-Star was at his best in the third quarter, knocking down 8 of 9 shots, scoring 16 points and hauling in five rebounds as the Blazers outscored the visitors 35-21 to move in front 83-80.

After a five-minute rest, Aldridge was great down the stretch, too, scoring four straight baskets in a span of 1:51 to lift Portland from a 98-97 deficit to a 105-100 lead.

And just before it was over, many in the crowd of 18,950 rose to salute the player they believe to be the best in the league right now. Aldridge, who has spent all eight of his NBA seasons in Portland and made overtures after last season that a trade might be in his best interests, was touched.

"It was just surreal," he told the media throng assembled by his locker after one of the greatest individual performances of his career. "It was humbling to have that moment here. I've been here so long, and I've had very few of those chances. That was fun. That made the night complete for me."

It was a great team win, but Aldridge's showing was so outstanding, it was hard not to focus on his standing among the game's elite.

"I say it every game," Batum said. "He's the best power forward in the game. I'm not surprised what he did tonight."

Could Aldridge be the NBA's MVP?

"He deserves to be in the discussion right now," Batum said. "We're No. 1 in the West and No. 2 in the league. He's the best player we have. He's a top-five player right now."

"Got to be getting MVP votes with the way we're playing, with the level he's playing at," guard Wesley Matthews added. "He's willing us (to win) right now."

Aldridge finished 17 for 28 from the field and 4 for 4 from the line, falling just short of his career-high of 42 points. His shot chart showed he wasn't getting easy shots. Only five of his career-high 17 field goals were from inside the paint. The rest were perimeter shots, sometimes over the outstretched hand of a defender.

"He was shooting turnarounds from almost the 3-point line on top of our bigs and knocking them down," said OKC's Kevin Durant, who put on a wicked display of his own with 33 points and seven rebounds. "That's what great players do. They come through in the clutch. He's a shot-maker."

"L.A. was just feeling it," Portland point guard Damian Lillard said. "When a player like that starts feeling it, he's almost unstoppable.

"He releases the ball so high, and he's so much taller than a lot of guys, it's tough. On a lot of the shots, (the Thunder) defended well. It was just great defense, better shot. He's been like that all season, especially down the stretch of games. That's what All-Stars do."

Aldridge scored 12 points in the first quarter, then was shut out in the second quarter as the Thunder fronted him then came with back-side help every time the ball came in his direction. Curiously, the visitors went away from the tactic in the second half, using center Kendrick Perkins to guard him at times, and he made them pay.

"The second half, they didn't front me," Aldridge said. "We ran pick-and-roll and I had Perkins on me, who is a little bigger and slower, and I got open looks."

There were 14 lead changes and 15 ties in an ultra-competitive contest between two of the league's top teams through the first five weeks of the regular season.

Oklahoma City finished the second quarter strong and waltzed into intermission with a 59-48 lead.

"We didn't have much going in the first half," Stotts said. The Thunder "had a lot of momentum. They had 15 fast-break points, 15 second-chance points at halftime. We knew we had to do better."

The Blazers did. They still couldn't put the Thunder away until, with Portland ahead only 105-104, Batum -- being defended by Durant -- knocked down a 3-pointer with 29.4 seconds to play.

"I was supposed to get the ball inside," said Batum, who finished with 14 points, six rebounds and three assists. "I was surprised to be that wide open, so I was like, 'Shoot it.' "

"I had to tell him all night to look for his opportunities to take shots," Aldridge said. "He caught K.D. asleep on the weak side. That was big for us."

After beating the team with the NBA's best record -- Indiana -- on Monday night and following that with a victory over the Thunder, the Blazers are making believers of a lot of observers.

"We knew the first week of December would be huge for us," Batum said. "The Lakers, Indiana, OKC, with Utah and (Dallas) coming up. … we knew we had to prove something.

"We've shown who we are the last couple of games. We have a lot of respect for the OKC team, and we want to show the league we are there, too."

The Blazers are like a hot rock n' roll band, churning out blockbuster hit after blockbuster hit.

"Everybody's buying into how we need to play to win games," Stotts said. "We're not going to hold teams under 90 every night. We're not going to score 110 every night. But everybody has embraced their roles. As a team going forward, in the process of becoming a better team, that's critical."

"We're just hungry," said Matthews, who made only 4 of 12 shots but finished with 13 points and five rebounds. The Thunder "tried to knock us out early, but we showed a strong willpower.

"We don't get our heads down. Teams have made runs against us, but our guys are playing with a lot of confidence, a lot of attitude. We just keep coming back."

Batum noted the Blazers lost the final 13 games of last season.

"Now we're 16-3," he said. "We have a lot of new guys. Damian's a sophomore, and L.A., Wes and I are the only guys here from two years ago. It's a new team. We know people are going to wait on us. So we have to prove every time. We're OK with that. We believe, but we're not satisfied."

Are the Blazers the best team in the league right now?

"There are a lot of good teams," he said, a twinkle in his eyes. "But we're right there."

NOTES

• Stotts and Lillard both mentioned a defensive play made by Dorell Wright after OKC's Jeremy Lamb stole the ball and headed downcourt for a dunk attempt in the fourth quarter with Portland ahead 88-84. Wright chased him down and affected the shot enough to make Lamb miss. Thunder guard Derek Fisher, following the play, rebounded, but Lillard was there, too, and Fisher missed the layup. The Blazers rebounded, getting the ball to Lillard for a 3-pointer and a 91-84 lead. Stotts: "A big momentum play." Lillard: "From there, it was, 'All right, this is our game.' "

• OKC's Russell Westbrook scored 21 points but made only 7 of 17 shots from the field.

• Lillard had 14 points and six assists but made only 4 of 14 shots. He is shooting .391 from the field this season.

• Portland, which entered the game ranked second in the NBA in 3-point percentage (.413) and fourth in 3-pointers made per game (9.5), was 8 for 23 from beyond the stripe Wednesday night, but that still provided the margin of victory over the Thunder, who were 5 for 11. "They're making them at an alarming rate," OKC coach Scotty Brooks said before the game.

• Aldridge had his ninth double-double of the season.

• Center Robin Lopez (12 points, 10 rebounds) had his seventh double-double this season.

• Portland is off to the second-best start in franchise history (18-1 in 1990-91 was the best).

• Aldridge's career-high 17 field goals tied New York's Carmelo Anthony for the most made in a game this season. Only three Blazers have ever had 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in a game -- Aldridge, Clyde Drexler and Zach Randolph.

• Aldridge moved ahead of Geoff Petrie into sixth place on the franchise career scoring list with 9,745 points.

• It was Aldridge's 15th 20-point game this season, tied with Durant for the most in the NBA.

• Durant had seven rebounds, ending a four-game string of 20/10 performances.

• Brooks, asked pregame if he is surprised the Blazers have turned things around so quickly: "Last year, they had a lot of good pieces. Sometimes it takes awhile for it to all come together. Terry has done a good job of being consistent with his message. You have to have consistency within your group in your teachings. All the better teams in this league have that. Their core group of players have been together for a while. It helps if they're good players. Portland has a bunch of good players."

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