PORTLAND, Ore. – In the final, raucous redemptive seconds, LaMarcus Aldridge had to stop and listen to something belonging to him here. All these years, and someone else was the most beloved Blazer. All these years, and someone else was the star. All these years, and it had become a matter of time until management found a trade for him.
And then this on Wednesday night: "MVP…" they stood and screamed in the old Rose Garden.
Out of all the bad breaks and bad knees here, out all the hard feelings and hard losses, LaMarcus Aldridge closed out one of the most peerless performances in the NBA this season: 38 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. All around him, the din was downright deafening.
"Humbling to have that moment here," Aldridge said later. "I've been here so long and I've had very few of those types of chants here."
"M-V-P," they screamed and swayed into the night. All around him, Rip City.
"The best power forward in the game," Blazers guard Wesley Matthews declared. "He's always been the centerpiece but now, he's embracing it."
They embraced Aldridge the way he embraces them now, the way he embraced ownership of this franchise and perhaps the NBA's proudest, most invested city. The Blazers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-104 the way they had beaten the Indiana Pacers on Monday, the way that they had beaten the San Antonio Spurs.
Best record in the Western Conference now, 16-3, and everyone stood and screamed and wondered to themselves: What in the world's going on here?
"No one saw this coming," Aldridge said.
Outside his locker, Aldridge sat for a moment and smiled. The way these Blazers share the ball and the praise, the way they so ruthlessly defend, it comes back to trust. And when Aldridge would've been grateful to get a trade out of here a year ago, here was another new general manager telling him: Trust me.
Only this time it's been validated. All these smaller moves, one by one, have created a sum so much greater than the parts. No one saw these Blazers coming, the way no one saw general manager Neil Olshey coming in his career as an executive.
Perhaps no was impressed when Olshey came into Portland and delivered Aldridge a two-time fired journeyman coach, Terry Stotts, and a point guard out of Weber State, Damian Lillard. Perhaps no one cared much about a strategic summer of bringing Robin Lopez and Mo Williams and Dorell Wright onto the roster.
Only now, Lillard is the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, Stotts is the frontrunner to be Coach of the Year, and all these players have fit into framework to create a sum far greater than its parts.
"Neil has done great job," Aldridge told Yahoo Sports. "I mean, he's done … great."
All around Olshey, he's working to temper expectations. Slow down, he's telling everyone. Slow down. All they wanted was to make the playoffs here, just grow and progress and start to construct some sustainable success. And then there's another one of these nights – back-to-back beatings of Indiana and Oklahoma City – and Olshey had to laugh and shrug and wonder the way everyone else does: Just how good can these Blazers be?
From the moment he had arrived from the Los Angeles Clippers a year and a half ago, everything changed for Olshey, too. He made the important moves to turn that forlorn franchise into a contender, sold owner Donald Sterling on a commitment to winning, and ultimately couldn't resist this Blazers challenge.
"You could live and work in anonymity in L.A.," Olshey told Yahoo Sports, "but it's different here. At one point, the Dalai Lama was here and our president, Chris McGowan, and I presented him with a Blazers jersey. I wouldn't have even been on the list to be in the arena with him in L.A."
After owner Paul Allen discarded GM after GM, Olshey was the next in a long beleaguered line of executives to play the part of savior. He changed everything here – the coaches and trainers and structure that had the franchise stranded in a tortured state of waiting for the next disaster. "Players first," he told everyone, and told them every day. There isn't a decision made that isn't punctuated with this: How does it impact those 15 guys?
And quickly, he learned this: The people of Portland didn't want a winner, they needed one.
"It caught me off guard," Olshey said. "Listen, I had been in this building as a front-office executive, a coach, and I knew how much it meant inside this building with the fans. But how much the identity of this city is wrapped up in the Blazers. It's so important that this team performs well – and does it with the right kind of guys. It's not just winning, but how we win, how we lose, how guys play, how guys treat the fans.
"And you know, that's what accelerated it for me. It would be great to come in with a three-to-five-year plan, slowly rebuild, but about five minutes after I got here, I realized: We're going to have to pick the pace up on this."
Here it was, the final night of a 33-victory season in April – Nicolas Batum and Matthews out hurt – and Olshey marveled over the scenes inside a packed Rose Garden. "The place was still rooting like it's Game 7 of the NBA Finals. When people embrace the organization like that, you owe it to them to get a winning product on the court as soon as possible."
And for so many in Portland, there had come a resignation that his first step to do it would be with a trade of Aldridge. Unless Olshey was getting back a blockbuster package – a true star – he was never moving Aldridge. Aldridge's contract doesn't expire until 2015, and one thing people should understand about Olshey: His personality isn't to be back on his heels, reactive. He's aggressive and unafraid and, yes, Neil Olshey is a little defiant.
All of it spilled into the old Rose Garden on Wednesday night, the journeyman coach and the Big Sky Conference point guard and the Lopez brother without the max contract. All of it spilled into old Rose Garden, the improbable Blazers an improbable cast staring down at the Thunder and Spurs, the Rockets and Clippers, in the Western Conference standings.
All these Blazers make no proclamations of themselves as contenders. This core has been through too much losing, too many long seasons and heartache here. Sixteen and three is wonderful, but this is December and there's a long, long way to go. Nevertheless, this a different day for the Blazers. The ghosts of bad knees and bad breaks are disappearing into the distance, and there was Aldridge standing in the middle of it all, the best player on the best team in Western Conference, letting the love wash over him.
After all those years, LaMarcus Aldridge heard the sweetest sound in the old Rose Garden. "M-V-P," they screamed, and, yes, it was something to see Rip City alive again.