This is the LaMarcus Aldridge the Trail Blazers need to be successful in Western-Conference battles like the one that took place on Sunday night at the Rose Garden. He was physical, determined, and a touch nasty, as the Blazers scored a measure of revenge with a 119-106 victory.
The last time the Timberwolves were in Portland, it was Kevin Love who stole the show, scoring 42 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as his team won in Portland for the first time since 2005. Love just about repeated the feat again just four days later, on March 7th, as he went for 29 and 16 as the Timberwolves beat the Blazers in Minnesota.
On Sunday, even though Aldridge's numbers weren't decidedly dominant in the head-to-head battle, he led the way with aggressive play, which set the tone, and Portland was able to avoid the season sweep. Aldridge scored 26 points, on 10 of 17 shooting, and grabbed nine rebounds. Love had 26 and 9, but was just 7 for 16 from the field. L.A. also recorded an emphatic block on Love and sent the ball into the sixth row of seats. The crowd reacted, and so did Love, who threw a high elbow at Aldridge the next trip down and the two had to be separated.
The difference between this win, and the first two losses to Minnesota, was that Aldridge had plenty of help on this night. His scrappy play rubbed off on his teammates, especially J.J. Hickson, who continued his outstanding play since becoming a Blazer. Hickson ended with 15 points (14 in the second half) and also grabbed nine rebounds (four offensive).
Seeing Aldridge and Hickson play so effectively together in the second half obviously leads to the question- should those two be starting together on the front line? Joel Przybilla, who didn't play in this game so that he could rest his sore knee, wouldn't have played much in this game anyway, so Hickson got extended minutes with Aldridge. Minnesota is small right now, and Portland was able to play the Aldridge/Hickson combo and not get hurt on the boards. Against Utah on Monday, this may not be the case. Utah is big and physical, and hopefully Przybilla will be able to go, because he'll be needed.
One thing is certain about Hickson- this doesn't look like flash-in-the-pan stuff. He's energized this team with his play since joining the team. As we've continued to say on our broadcasts, he needed to show us something, and he continues to. As Aldridge said after the game, Hickson takes pressure off of everyone, with his constant activity, and ability to get hustle points. The team doesn't run plays for him, he just gets what he gets by pure effort.
This was also the Nicolas Batum the Trail Blazers need to see more often. Batum can disappear for stretches, and even for entire games now and then, but he was assertive in this contest for 48 minutes, and that's exactly the way he needs to play. Batum had 24 points, and continued to look for his shot, something he should always do.
The Blazers got balanced scoring from the rest of the starting five as well, as Wesley Matthews had 18 points, and Ray Felton flirted with a triple double, scoring 10, dishing out 11 assists, and grabbing 8 rebounds.
It's also becoming more and more difficult to keep Jonny Flynn off the court. He had just four points, but also had seven assists and three rebounds in his 18 minutes. Flynn sees the court extremely well, and is lightening-quick.
The bench was also solid in this game, shooting 12 for 21 from the field, led by Jamal Crawford's 12 points. And, Luke Babbitt continues to lead all second-year players in the NBA in three-point percentage. He's now 21 for 40 on the season, and has no fear. He drilled a 30-foot bomb in this game, and looked effortless in doing it.
The Blazers may have slim playoff hopes, but they have hopes, and opportunities continue to come. They host Utah Monday night, and will need the same kind of effort and focus to have a chance to further build momentum for a final run.