LeBron has the trophies, Blake Griffin and Chris/Cliff Paul have the TV commercials, and Charles has Kenny Smith in a chokehold late in the night inside Studio J. But at the moment, it is LaMarcus Aldridge who has the NBA postseason in his personal vice grip, and that is perfectly fine, the concept of discovering great players who’ve existed all along but of whom we know little because they’re soft-spoken by nature and play in outposts like Portland.
This is what happens when pro basketball, with the Lakers and Celtics out and the Trail Blazers and Wizards in, processes a radical reboot. We see Aldridge go for 46 points and 18 rebounds in a crackling Game 1 victory in Houston, then follow with 43 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks in a Game 2 win. In the last 50 years, only Michael Jordan and Jerry West have amassed more points in the first two games of a playoff series. Yeah, I can hear the numbers geeks now, complaining Aldridge does his best work on mid-range jumpshots that make no sense in an advanced metrics world that demands the efficiency of three-pointers and layups. Daryl Morey, general manager of the Rockets, is one such geek.
He’s down 0-2 and headed for a likely elimination in Oregon while his deep sharpshooter, James Harden, figures out why he has missed 33 shots so far — he’s made 8 of 32 jumpers — as a maddening model of inefficiency. Let Aldridge take his delicious fallaway all night. No one can stop it, anywhere, and certainly not Houston’s befuddled Omer Asik. “We’ve got to get the ball out of LaMarcus’ hands,’’ Harden said after the 112-105 loss. “He killed us.’’
Killed them softly, I should add, though Aldridge is starting to pipe up about being noticed nationally. After his Game 1 masterpiece, TNT oddly chose teammate Damian Lillard as its post-game interview subject. “It was a little weird,’’ Aldridge told the Oregonian. “You make history and … that was a little weird.’’ Turns out no harm was intended; after nearly 3 1/2 hours of late-night action, a sideline reporter simply opted for the first Portland star he could find. Still, Aldridge has been dealing with slights his entire career. He wants more love.
“It’s just one of those things I get used to,’’ he said.
That is about to change. Everyone is talking about the smooth 6-11 forward who scores like Kevin Durant and rebounds like Kevin Love. “What can they do to stop him? He was great once again, just like Game 1,” Lillard said. “When a lot of guys couldn’t get going and couldn’t hit shots, he just carried us. He played like an MVP again.”
“We tried changing it up tonight,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “Tonight, he was picking and popping and moving, and we were having trouble running people at him. We were trying to get the ball out of his hands as much as we could.”
Nothing worked. Dwight Howard, playing like his old self in Houston at long last, thought he had it figured out on Game 2 eve, when he publicly demanded the ball. “We have to play inside out, play their bigs and make it a long night for those guys,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “I have to demand the ball, get it and go to work. … We have to go right back at (Aldridge). You have to make him play defense and make him use his energy on defense. Make him have to run around and guard.”
Howard was a force in the first half with 25 points. But when the Blazers used Aldridge to double-team him in the post, Howard managed just seven points the rest of the game. Terry Stotts, heretofore an unappreciated retread, is doing one of the league’s best coaching jobs in Portland. Given the problems of the San Antonio Spurs in the Dallas series, are the Blazers a potential wild-card team for the Western Conference finals? As long as Aldridge is playing like an action hero, why not? “He’s very determined, very focused,’’ Stotts said. “He’s leading the team, not only with his play but how he’s handling himself. It’s as well as I’ve seen him play.’’
Afterward, Aldridge received a text from his 5-year-old son, who said his performance reminded him of Spider-Man. Dad may want more attention, but let’s not go that far. `We’re going to stay hungry, stay humble and go home and try to duplicate the same,’’ Aldridge said.
Duplicate 89 points the next two, and, hell, LaMarcus actually might get a Kia commercial. And for those wondering who might save the absent Lakers or Knicks, guess who’s a free agent in the summer of ’15?