Last summer, Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge was the subject of trade rumors that would have moved him from the only NBA team he's ever known. Nearly a year later, he's clearly been the best player of the first few days of the 2014 postseason.
For the second consecutive game, Aldridge terrorized the Houston Rockets' defense. Coming three days after his 46-point, 18-rebound performance in Portland's Game 1 win, Aldridge scored 43 points on 18-of-28 shooting to lead his team to a 112-105 win and a 2-0 series lead, giving Portland a huge advantage as the series heads to their home court for Games 3 and 4.
Aldridge's performance places him in impressive historic company. He is the first player in Blazers history to score 40 or more points in two playoff games over his entire tenure with the team, the first player to score 40 points in consecutive playoff games since LeBron James in 2009, and the third player in NBA history to score 40-plus points in both Games 1 and 2 on the road. Aldridge was an All-Star and early MVP candidate this season, but he has elevated his game to new levels in the first two games against the Rockets.
Perhaps most impressively, he's excelled in different areas of the floor in each game. In Game 1, Aldridge did the vast majority of his damage near the basket and at the line:
In Game 2, though, the Blazers adjusted their plan and put Aldridge into pick-and-rolls with Damian Lillard and others, setting up a large number of mid-range jumpers:
The Rockets had few answers for Aldridge. At different times, they tried to cover him with Dwight Howard and Omer Asik in isolation and various double-teams, but nothing seemed to work. The best defense on Aldridge appeared to be his own fatigue — he looked gassed in the closing minutes and gave way to his perimeter teammates to close things out.
Yet, for whatever Aldridge seemed to lack in the game's final moments, the Rockets as a whole gave much greater cause for concern. Despite Aldridge's heroics, this was a close game in the final minute, with the Rockets trailing only 102-98 with 44 seconds left in regulation. After forcing Aldridge into a missed jumper, it looked like they might take the Blazers to the final buzzer. However, Lillard grabbed the long rebound and took an immediate and reckless foul from Patrick Beverley, pushing the lead to six points with two free throws. The Rockets did get two points from Howard at the line on the next possession, but that was followed by perhaps their worst mistake of the game. In transition, all five Rockets let Wesley Matthews slip past them in for an easy lay-up. To make matters worse, Jeremy Lin fouled Lillard — one of the best free-throw shooters in the NBA — after a James Harden 3-pointer on the next possession, extending the game. The problem was that they trailed by only three points with 28 seconds on the clock, which means that a defensive stop would have given them a chance to tie at the buzzer. It seems that every time the Rockets had a chance to come back, they got in their own way with an avoidable mistake.
The team's biggest cause for concern, though, is the play of James Harden. With a 6-of-19 shooting performance in Game 2, Harden drove his series mark to 14 of 47 from the field, or 29.8 percent. Dwight Howard's 32 points (13 of 22) suggest Houston has other options, but this remains a perimeter-oriented team that needs better contributions from its All-Star guard to succeed. The basketball world will be watching him as the series moves to Portland.
With a 2-0 lead and two games coming at the raucous Rose Garden Moda Center, the Blazers find themselves in excellent position to win their first playoff series since 2000. As noted by Grantland's Bill Barnwell, teams that win the first two games on the road are 24-3, so history suggests Portland should move on. If they're able to do so, Aldridge figures to get a good deal of the credit. He's been as good as a player can be.
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