When going gets tough, Blazers go to L.A.
It started out as if it was going to be a long night for LaMarcus Aldridge.
It proved to be -- for the Denver Nuggets.
Aldridge scored 30 of his career-high 44 points in the second half -- including Portland's last 15 in a row -- in the Trail Blazers' 110-105 victory Thursday night at the Moda Center.
It snapped a two-game losing streak for the Blazers (32-11), who trailed by 15 points in the third quarter before beginning to reel in the Nuggets (20-21).
And it came on the heels of news earlier in the day that Aldridge was not voted by fans as a starter for the Western Conference in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game.
But Aldridge said the slight didn't provide extra motivation.
"It was nothing about that," said Aldridge, who also had 13 rebounds and five assists. "We had lost two games. We just needed this one."
Pressed by media, Aldridge added, "I should have been a starter, but it's over with now I'm used to these things happening. Everybody around me was more upset than me."
Asked by Ben Golliver of Blazers Edge and SI.com if Thursday's performance served as a statement game for Aldridge, teammate Wesley Matthews grinned.
"I think his statement is coming on Saturday," Matthews said.
He meant Saturday's Moda Center visit by Minnesota to face the Blazers. The Timberwolves' star power forward, Lake Oswego's Kevin Love, was voted as a West starter. Love and Aldridge have waged a fierce rivalry in recent years, fueled by debate over which with Portland connections is the better player.
Aldridge doesn't have to convince anyone in the Blazer organization of his prowess.
"L.A. is the best power forward in the league," small forward Nicolas Batum said. "I don't know why he's not starting in the All-Star Game."
"MVP candidate," Matthews said. "He put it on display again tonight."
Nobody put it better than eminently quotable center Robin Lopez, who quipped: "He was incredible as always -- even more so. It's such a fantastic crutch to have."
The Blazers did lean on Aldridge at crunch time. But he started the game slowly, making only 1 of his first 7 shots from the field.
"It happens sometimes," he said. "Early in the game, I had great looks, but they weren't falling."
Once he got going, though, Aldridge was like a bat out of hell against the smaller Nuggets, who had no one with enough length or defensive skill to bother him much. After scoring 14 points in the first half, he had 15 in the third quarter and another 15 in the fourth.
After rookie C.J. McCollum's 3-pointer with 9:20 to play gave Portland a 95-93 lead, no Blazers scored except the L-Train.
Most of it was at the free-throw line, where Aldridge finished 14 for 17. He was 11 for 14 in the fourth quarter, much to the chagrin of Denver coach Brian Shaw.
"The buckets Aldridge made, I can live with that," Shaw said. "But some of the fouls we committed -- just sending him to the line without him really having to work for it -- hurt us, especially in the fourth quarter."
Shaw chose not to double-team Aldridge most of the game, using Kenneth Faried and JJ Hickson to defend the Blazers' All-Star, often by fronting him. As the game wore on, Aldridge grew more effective, making 14 of his last 22 shots and wearing out the Nuggets at the line.
"The play we were running, they couldn't put anybody in position to help," said point guard Damian Lillard, who had a quiet night with 11 points and three assists. "Once they started fronting him, we ran a drop play and were able to throw it over the top a lot of the times. Most of the time, he just worked over the front of his man to get the ball."
"They tried to deny him, but we were able to get him the ball," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "They (only) doubled him two or three times. In the first half, they played him straight, and he was able to get into the paint pretty easily."
Aldridge was glad to have come through in the clutch after missing his final seven shots from the field in a 105-97 loss Tuesday at Oklahoma City. He appreciated the opportunity to be the go-to guy down the stretch.
"It's a team thing," he said. "Everybody was looking for me late. Wes and Nico passed up shots. 'Dame' had looks, but he was trying to find me. It was about the team tonight."
Denver had the upper hand early, leading 30-27 after one quarter and 67-59 at halftime. The Nuggets shot .585 from the field in what wasn't a stellar defensive half for the Blazers, allowing mighty mite guards Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson to each score 13 points before intermission.
The Nuggets stretched their lead to 78-63 three minutes into the third quarter, but then the worm turned. The 5-11 Lawson, guarded by the 6-8 Batum for portions of the second half, was blanked the final 24 minutes, over which Denver shot .393 as a team.
"That's the way we have to play defense the whole game," Aldridge said. "We came to the locker room and talked about it. Guys came out more focused the second half."
The victory kept Portland within a game of Oklahoma City (33-10) and a half-game of San Antonio (32-10) in the tight Western Conference race. And it prevented the Blazers from experiencing their first three-game losing streak of the season.
"We lost two games," Batum said. "Great teams don't lose three in a row."
"That's one of our goals, to not lose two, but definitely not drop three," Aldridge said. "The top teams, they don't drop three (straight) games. We've been good so far with that."
It could have happened Thursday night, if not for the brilliance of Aldridge.
"It goes without saying, LaMarcus just keeps impressing everybody with what he's doing," Stotts said. "He was fantastic. He showed it again tonight.
"LaMarcus has the respect of the players, the coaches and the general managers in the league. He's going to be in the All-Star game (as a reserve chosen by the coaches), and deservedly so."
Portland won despite making only 4 of 18 3-point attempts. The Blazers, who lead the league while averaging 10.1 makes a game, are also No. 2 in 3-point percentage (.392). It was their second-fewest makes of the season.
Aldridge's previous career high was 42 vs. Chicago in February 2011. He becomes the first player with at least 44 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in a game since New Jersey's Vince Carter in April 2007.
Aldridge tied a franchise record with his seventh straight game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. He has 21 20/10 games and has had at least 12 rebounds in a career-high seven games.
Portland is 9-5 in games decided by five points or fewer, 19-6 in games decided by 10 points or fewer.
Matthews scored 18 of his 24 points in the first half, finishing 8 for 15 from the field and 6 for 6 from the line. It was his 12th 20-point performance of the season, earning this high praise from Stotts: "He's as good a competitor as I've been around at both ends of the floor. He wants to win. He wants to play well. He was into it tonight."
Batum, playing with a new splint to protect the middle left finger he fractured two weeks ago, was only 1 for 5 from the field but had six points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.
"It felt a little better than last game," he said. "Still got a lot of pain. If I continue to get treatment, it should be OK."
The 5-11 Lawson went scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting in the second half as Stotts used the 6-8 Batum to guard him much of the time.
Hickson, who played for the Blazers last season, had 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists in his first appearance in Portland since signing a free-agent contract over the summer.
Northwest Oregon Conference