Portland's new meal ticket must deliver, or else
by: JAIME VALDEZ LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazer forward, drives into Dallas' Brendan Haywood on Sunday, as Portland rolls to a win over the Mavericks at the Rose Garden.

There are a lot of reasons why the Trail Blazers have been able to fight their way through more than their share of adversity to mount another run to the postseason.

None, though, is bigger than the emergence of LaMarcus Aldridge as one of the major inside presences in the NBA - taking over for Brandon Roy as the Blazers' meal ticket.

Portland coach Nate McMillan, not one given to hyperbole, waxes effusive in praise of his power forward.

'Where he goes, we go,' McMillan says. 'We play through him the way we did Brandon in previous years. He has become the guy who establishes how we're going to play. When he plays well, we play well.'

Which brings up the $64.8-million (his salary over the next five years) question: Can Aldridge replicate his regular-season role in the playoffs?

If the Blazers are to get past Dallas, San Antonio or the Lakers - one of the three will be their opponent in the first round - Aldridge can't be the player who averaged 19.0 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting .430 from the field as Phoenix prevailed in six games a year ago.

Aldridge had one colossal game - 31 points and 11 boards in a Game 4 victory - but was mortal in the other five games, shooting below 50 percent in four of the games and grabbing four or fewer rebounds three times.

It's an unpleasant memory for Aldridge, Portland's No. 1 option in the absence of Roy, who made a gallant but ultimately fruitless comeback from knee surgery the final three games of the series.

'Last year left a bad taste in my mouth,' Aldridge says. 'I had to be the guy, and I didn't do my job as good as I can.'

Maybe that was what shook Aldridge into action in the offseason, building his body to Amare Stoudemire-like proportions and adding a physical interior game to his soft shooting touch.

This season, with Greg Oden shelved and Roy not the same player due to knee surgeries, the burden has fallen upon Aldridge to carry the load.

On almost every occasion, Aldridge has been up to the task.

'LaMarcus has done a great job,' Roy says. 'If I were grading him, I'd give him an A-plus. Through ups and downs, night in and night out, being expected to accept a certain role - he has been there all the time.

'He is playing like the best power forward in the league. He has done an unbelievable job of keeping this team where it's at.'

Aldridge has embraced his new prominence. The player who had a difficult time making shots in the fourth quarter last season now wants the ball in his hands at crunch time. More often than not, he delivers.

'It's been fun,' he says. 'I worked hard to get ready for these moments. I've grown into this position, into this role. I always felt like if I kept getting better, I'd be this type of player.

'My confidence is definitely up since last year. The work I put in last summer made me more confident going into the season. Then, being in this role for most of the season has brought it up even more.'

Along the way, Aldridge has become the Blazers' spiritual leader.

'He has been more vocal this year,' forward Nicolas Batum says. 'When we group together on the court during a game, he is the one who is talking every time. He is the captain of our team, the go-to guy, the leader.'

If the Blazers are to emerge victorious in the first round, he'll be the one matched up against Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol or Tim Duncan. Aldridge will be expected to win that individual battle, or at least hold his own.

'He's up there among the best big men in the game,' Dallas coach Rick Carlisle says. 'Guys like Aldridge and Nowitzki, who can hurt you on the inside and step out with real range, are the most difficult players to guard.

'When he came into the league, Aldridge was a good mid-range shooter, but now he's a deadeye outside shooter for a big guy. That's something you have to game-plan extra for. A big guy like that, who catches it high and has a high shooting pocket, he's really difficult to deal with.'

Nobody understands more the pressures of being a team's No. 1 man than Roy, who filled that role for the Blazers almost from his rookie season.

'Mentally, you have to be ready every night,' Roy says. 'People don't understand the pressure on the top guy. You can't take a night off. You're always trying to get yourself ready for the next game. You don't have the same freedom the other players have.

'LaMarcus has done a wonderful job of keeping his game on an even keel, of having a good game, then coming back focused and having another good game. There's nothing he could do more of than he has done this season.'

Soon, though, the second season begins. And Aldridge will have to reprise his role in the regular season. Step it up, perhaps, if the Blazers are to advance.

Defenses will work even harder to get the ball out of his hands.

'He is going to see double-teams every game,' Batum says. 'But he's used to it. He'll move the ball. He trusts (his teammates). He's a smart player. He knows if he takes the focus of the defense, we can win.'

The greats of the game know when to pass out of double-teams, then kick into an extra gear to take over a game when necessary. Aldridge has improved in that category.

'I've seen him calm down more this year than in the past,' McMillan says. 'There are some teams that have rattled him. There are certain players who are going to give him a tough time.

'He'll have those nights where he gets frustrated. But I haven't seen as many of those nights this year. I've seen him play through that a lot more often.'

Batum will be important to Portland's postseason chances. So, too, will Gerald Wallace, and Andre Miller and a host of their teammates.

If the Blazers are to advance to the second round, though, it's LaMarcus Aldridge who will have to answer the bell.

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