It has been 14 long years since Portland basketball fans have witnessed their beloved Trail Blazers advance beyond the first round of the NBA playoffs. Even though they are not over the hurdle yet, last night’s 123-120 overtime victory over the Houston Rockets has now given Portland a 3-1 stranglehold on the series, as the playoff’s hottest performer LaMarcus Aldridge leads the Trail Blazers one step closer to a second round birth.
In what has been arguably the most spectacular basketball of the playoffs–despite the series currently sitting at 3-1–nobody has played better than LaMarcus Aldridge. He is the highest scoring player in the playoffs by a long shot. In four games he has posted 141 points and 46 rebounds. What makes that special? The last time a player had more than 140 points and 45 rebounds in their first four playoff games was when Hakeem Olajuwon did it back in 1988. Aldridge is also getting it done on the defensive end averaging three blocks a game as well as posting a plus-six rating, and the Trail Blazers just look like a better team overall when he is on the floor.
Houston has tried to use size in order to slow Aldridge down in the past two games by playing both centers Dwight Howard and Omer Asik in tandem. The only problem is that the all-star power forward’s mid range game is so efficient that it pulls Houston’s size away from the rim, and he is in such an offensive groove that it seems anything he hoists up is going in, regardless of the defender. By having the offense flow through Aldridge, it has created space for the rest of the Trail Blazers to drive the lane to the basket or kick out to an open shooter on the perimeter.
It is not as if the Rockets are handing Aldridge a free pass to the basket. He occasionally gets an easier bucket off a pick and roll, or put back, but aside from that, he is going all game long against giant defenders like Omer Asik and Dwight Howard, or Terrence Ross with a help defender. But, just like basketball fans have seen from greats of the past, there are times when solid defense is thwarted by unbelievable offense, and right now, LaMarcus Aldridge is playing in a league of his own.
Though, Aldridge may be the star leading the Trail Blazers one step closer in their first round push, he is certainly not alone. Their other all-star, point guard Damian Lillard has been making all sorts of critical plays when the pressure is on. Whether he is drilling a momentum shifting three-ball, driving the lane for a hoop and the harm, finding the open cutter for an easy lay-up, or swinging the ball out to an open shooter on the perimeter, Lillard is playing well beyond his years and is a calming presence on the court for his squad.
Small forward Nicholas Batum has found his all around game again. Robin Lopez is crashing the boards and playing defense about as well as anyone can play on the freight train that is Dwight Howard. Wesley Matthews is going toe-toe in a true playoff battle with one of the league’s best natural scorers in James Harden, and more than holding his own. Both Mo Williams and Dorell Wright are providing points and critical hustle plays off the bench. The trail Blazers are winning the battles for 50-50 balls, diving to make steals and deflections, swinging the extra pass to an open shooter, and most importantly hitting their free throws. It has really become a full team effort in Portland, which is very rare to see in an era based upon stars and “big threes”.
The last time the Blazers found themselves up 3-1 in a playoff series was back in 2000 when they defeated the Utah Jazz 4-1 in the second round. They would go on to battle through an intense series in the Western Finals before ultimately being eliminated by the eventual league champion, Los Angeles Lakers in seven games.
This Portland team may not have as deep of a roster as those old squads from the 90s, but they certainly have talent and they are making all the key plays when they need to. The series will continue with Game 5 on Wednesday in Houston as LaMarcus Aldridge leads the Trail Blazers one step closer to closing out the series, and moving on to the next round.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky