As LaMarcus Aldridge dressed in the Trail Blazers locker room, with a large horde of reporters and cameramen surrounding his locker, teammate Wesley Matthews walked by and summed up Saturday’s game by simply saying: “Welcome back, L.A.” Portland’s All-Star forward, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, was back in the lineup after a five-game absence, and while he wasn’t a dominant force, he made plenty of contributions and helped the Blazers to a 102-96 victory over the Denver Nuggets before a sellout 20,068. The win was the Blazers’ fifth in a row, matching their second-longest winning streak of the season, and it's the fourth time this season they’ve had a streak that long. Aldridge, who missed the previous five games with a left groin strain, played 30 minutes and finished with 16 points, seven rebounds, threes assists, a block and a steal while shooting 7 for 15 from the field. “I feel good,” Aldridge said. “A little tired. But I think for the most part, my body felt good, my conditioning felt good.” The game got ragged toward the end, but Aldridge did his part to seal the win, grabbing a rebound, then making two free throws with 12.4 seconds left. Aldridge’s inside presence helped the Blazers turn around their major deficiency Tuesday, when they beat the Nuggets 100-95 in Denver, but the Nuggets stayed in the game by grabbing 27 offensive rebounds. “After the game in Denver, that got our attention,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “It was our focus.” This time, Portland kept the Nuggets to 10 offensive rebounds and outrebounded them 52-40. “That was their way of beating us,” Matthews said. “It was going to be on offensive rebounds, it was going to be on energy. We matched it tonight.” Aldridge’s presence benefited his teammates in other ways, especially center Robin Lopez. With Aldridge back, Denver opted to have center Timofey Mozgov defend the All-Star, leaving undersized 6-8 power forward Kenneth Faried to deal with the 7-foot Lopez. Lopez was dominant in the first half, when he had 12 points and six rebounds, and he finished with a team-high 18 points — the first time he has led the team in scoring this season — along with nine rebounds. He and Aldridge even exchanged assists, with each setting up the other for a dunk. “He’s been great all year,” Aldridge said. “I think he’s definitely gotten more comfortable in our offense, making reads and making plays in the pick-and-roll and things like that.” The Blazers got as balanced a game as they’ve had all season, with nine players scoring seven points or more. That included 34 points from Portland’s bench. The bench got a lift from Meyers Leonard, who returned from his own five-game absence, because of a sprained ankle, and had eight points and five rebounds. “I thought he played well,” Stotts said. “For the time that he missed, I thought he played a good game. He was physical inside. He got some fouls for kind of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I thought for his first game back, he played well.” The Blazers also got eight points from Dorell Wright, who has settled into a stretch power forward role he assumed in Aldridge’s absence, and seven points from Will Barton, who earned a spot in the rotation when the Blazers played without Aldridge, Leonard and the still-out Joel Freeland and Thomas Robinson. “I don’t think there’s any questions that the five games that L.A. missed, Meyers missed, the players that got a chance to play, they’re a little more comfortable out there,” Stotts said. “They earned more minutes.” With the win, the Blazers (41-18) held onto sole possession of third place in the Western Conference, even on a night that Houston (40-19) beat Detroit. The Blazers’ 4-1 record with Aldridge and the others out gave them an opportunity to control, at least somewhat, their playoff seeding. “We know that we control our own destiny,” Matthews said. “We’re at that luxury, we’re at the spot right now, where we weren’t last year any point, really. We just gotta win games, continue to build, continue to get better.” The Blazers beat Denver for the fourth time and swept the season series from the Nuggets for the first time since 1998-99, when they won all three games in a lockout-shortened season. It was Portland’s first 4-0 sweep of Denver since 1996-97. If the Blazers needed a reminder just how far, and how quickly, fortunes can fall in the NBA, they only needed to look at Denver. Last season, the Nuggets (25-33) set a franchise record with 57 wins in the regular season, finishing 24 games ahead of the Blazers. But after they lost in the first round of the playoffs, George Karl, who won the Coach of the Year award, was fired, and his replacement, Brian Shaw, inherited a roster that has been decimated by injuries. Saturday’s loss was Denver’s fifth in a row and 10th in 11 games.
Aldridge's return sparks Trail Blazers to win over Nuggets
Oregonian | Mar 2