Aldridge gives Blazers, son plenty to celebrate
HOUSTON A lot of folks appreciated LaMarcus Aldridge's virtuoso performance Wednesday night at the Toyota Center, but perhaps nobody more so than his oldest son, Jaylen.
Jaylen had a couple of pretty big items to celebrate: His fifth birthday and the Trail Blazers' resounding 112-105 victory over Houston for a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven NBA first-round playoff series.
"He texted me and said I looked like Spiderman when I dunked the one ball (in the fourth quarter)," Aldridge said.
No higher praise from a 5-year-old than that.
But Aldridge's plaudits basket was brim full after his 43-point search-and-destroy mission against a Houston team that, for the second straight game, had no answers for Portland's All-Star power forward.
Aldridge had busted out a franchise playoff-record 46 points to go with 18 rebounds in the Blazers' 122-120 overtime win in the opener. For three quarters, at least, he was maybe even better in Game 2, before finishing with 43 points, eight boards and three blocked shots in a head-to-head duel with Houston center Dwight Howard.
After shooting 16 for 22 from the field and scoring 39 points through the end of the third period, Aldridge showed a glimpse of mortality, making only 2 of 6 attempts over the final 12 minutes. It did little to diminish what he had accomplished in the first two games of the series -- likely the greatest back-to-back individual showings in franchise playoff history.
"I've seen him have a fantastic season," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "But these two games are as well as I've seen him play."
It was hard for his teammates to not be in awe.
"I was thinking, 'What can they do to stop him?' " said Portland point guard Damian Lillard, who made only 3 of 14 shots from the field. "He was hitting tough fadeaways, getting guys in the air, drawing fouls he was great once again, just like in Game 1. He carried our team once again.
"I couldn't get it going. A lot of guys weren't hitting shots. But L.A. played like an MVP again."
In Sunday's game, Aldridge had done extensive damage driving to the basket against Houston power forward Terrence Jones. Wednesday's performance was different. With Howard guarding Aldridge much of the way, especially through the early going, the Blazers captain took his game outside and buried jump shot after jump shot after jump shot over the Rockets' 7-foot star.
Aldridge's shot chart had X's all around the perimeter, just inside the 3-point line, and only a few inside the key area. One statistical report had him 13 for 15 on mid-range attempts.
"Last game, it was all inside," said Aldridge, addressing the media in Blazer colors -- red pants and a long-sleeved black shirt. "This game, it was all outside."
The Rockets knew they had to give Aldridge a different look defensively.
"We took him out of the post for the most part," Houston coach Kevin McHale said. "It was pick-and-pop. We tried running at him a couple of times, and he just shot it in the middle of us running at him. He made some tough shots.
"So far, he's had a hell of a series. That first game, he worked the paint and wore us out. Tonight he was picking and popping and moving, and we were having a hard time running at him because he was on the perimeter most of the time."
Aldridge said there was a short spell during the regular season a couple of seasons ago when he felt in the same kind of zone he's in now.
"But not on this type of stage, in this moment," he said. "This is the best I've felt. This team believes in me so much. (His teammates) ride the wave so well. When I'm going good, (players) one through 15 are all cheering for me. If I pass up a shot, they're all mad at me. To have 15 guys have your back like that is a great feeling."
Howard put up 32 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks, but he also had six turnovers and managed only seven points in the second half as the Rockets frittered away chances to fly to Portland for Friday's Game 3 with the series tied 1-1. Aldridge, meanwhile, kept coming, scoring 23 in the first half and 16 in the third quarter.
Aldridge got the defensive nod on Howard through much of the second half and was more effective neutralizing him than center Robin Lopez had been early.
"Dwight got off to such a good start," Stotts said. "We wanted to play him straight. We did a better job as the game went on of mixing up our coverages. Robin and L.A. both improved their individual defense, and the rest of the team really paid attention to him, too."
Houston's center was a man possessed early, working the middle to score his team's first 13 points and 19 in the first quarter on 8-for-9 shooting. Problem for the Rockets was, they couldn't shake the Blazers, who led 15-13 during Howard's initial onslaught. The Rockets were on top 31-23 after one quarter, but it was their biggest lead of the night.
The game was tied 53-53 at the half, and the Blazers led most of the rest of the way. Houston gained a one-point advantage a couple of times late in the third quarter, but Portland went into the final period with an 83-77 edge and never trailed again.
"To get a second win here is quite an accomplishment," Stotts said. "I liked our demeanor. We withstood some of their blows and kept fighting. It's something to be proud of, but we have a tough game on Friday. So it's just on to the next one."
Several times, the Rockets seemed on the verge of overhauling the Blazers. Often, it was Aldridge converting the neutralizer with a turnaround J.
"It's discouraging when you're hitting his hand on the release and he still makes it," Lillard said. "It's kind of draining when you make great plays and a guy answers every time."
Said Stott: "We were able to find ways to get him the ball, and he made a lot of tough shots. That's what the great ones do."
Portland won on a night when it lost the points-in-the-paint battle by an astounding 68-30. And on a night when scoring options two through four -- Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum -- combined to make 10 of 36 shots from the field.
But Lillard contributed 18 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds with only one turnover in 42 minutes.
"Dwight came over and helped and blocked three or four of my shots going to the basket," Lillard said. "For the most part, I took what they gave me. My shot wasn't going in. I knew I had to find a way to impact the game, grab some rebounds, find guys on the perimeter. We got guys who can knock down shots."
Two of them Wednesday night were Dorell Wright and Mo Williams, who combined for 28 points in a big pick-me-up off the bench. Wright had perhaps his best game as a Blazer, going 4 for 5 from the field, including 3 for 4 from 3-point range, and scoring 15 points with four rebounds and three blocks in 18 minutes. Williams, coming off a 1-for-6 shoot performance in the opener, scored 13 points in his 23-minute stint.
"D-Wright understands he needs to be ready when Coach (Stotts) calls his name," Lillard said. "He has to be ready to explode like he did. He came in and made shots and defensive plays and brought that veteran savvy to the game. Same thing with Mo. Being able to depend on the fact that they come into a game ready and know what we need for them has played a big role for us all season."
Besides Howard, Houston had very little going offensively. Howard finished 13 for 22 from the field; his teammates combined to go 26 for 68 (.382).
"We never got enough stops in a row to get going," McHale said. "Dwight got off to a great start, but we weren't able to sustain any kind of offensive push."
Houston's James Harden -- who averaged 25.4 points during the regular season and 30.3 points in four games against Portland -- followed Sunday's 8-for-28 shooting performance with a 6-for-19 night. The All-Star guard, defended by Matthews and Batum, has missed 33 of 47 attempts in the two games. He scored 18 points but also had five turnovers in 44 minutes Wednesday.
"Nic and Wes give a lot of effort every defensive possession," Stotts said. "James is one of the best scorers in the league. He's going to have his opportunities. We've done a good job of guarding him without fouling. We didn't fall asleep on him. He didn't get a lot of easy looks."
"What's exciting for us, we can do a lot of things better against him still," Lillard said. "He's one of the best 2 guards, if not the best. He's a handful. I'm not sure anybody in the league can stop him alone, but we've done a great job playing team defense, and Wes and Nico have done a great job making everything tougher for him. Because if a guy like that gets going, it can really change a game."
It's been 14 years since the Trail Blazers last won a first-round playoff series.
The longest such drought in the NBA's Western Conference may soon be coming to a close, though you won't hear the Blazers talking about it.
"We didn't think about going back to Portland 2-0," Lillard said. "We didn't want to get ahead of ourselves. But everybody in our locker room knew we were capable of winning. Once we stole Game 1, we kept telling ourselves, 'We need to get greedy. Don't be satisfied with one win.' "
"It's not over," Aldridge said. "Just like we came here and won two, (the Rockets) are probably thinking the same thing. We have to stay hungry, stay humble and go home and try to duplicate."
The Rockets now must win four of five games to claim the series -- three of them at the Moda Center. They know their margin for error is just about gone.
"We're not in a great rhythm, and we better get there," McHale said. "But as I told the guys, it's the first team to four, not to two. We have to go up there and grind out a win."
Is his players' mind-set that they believe they can come back to win the series?
"It better be," McHale said.
NOTES: Portland's bench outscored its Houston counterparts 30-13. Matthews is 10-for-27 shooting in the series, including 2 for 12 from 3-point range. Howard was on fire early, making his first six shots and scoring the Rockets' first 13 points in the game's first four minutes. Houston, which led the NBA in 3-point shots made during the regulars season (9.5 per game), was 3 for 16 from beyond the arc. In the series, the Rockets are 11 for 51 (.216) on 3-point attempts. Portland is 17 for 50 (.340) in the two games. In the first half of the opener, Houston's Chandler Parsons was 7 for 10 shooting. Since then, he has gone 8 for 26, including 5 for 15 in Game 2. Jefferson High grad Jones contributed 13 points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes for the Rockets, who went with the two-post lineup of Howard and 7-foot Omer Asik through much of the second half.