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Blazers, fans agree: 'We love L.A.'

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A fan at Moda Center on Thursday night holds a sign endorsing Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge for NBA MVP honors.After he had finishing beasting the Houston Rockets with one of the great individual performances in Trail Blazers history Thursday night at the Moda Center, LaMarcus Aldridge didn't exactly rest on his laurels.

The big fella headed for the weight training room adjacent to the team's locker room for 10 minutes of light lifting. To get stronger?

"I always lift," Aldridge explained. "I feel overly strong right now, but I always work out after the games, just to wind down."

Why change the routine? Aldridge is in a groove few NBA players get to experience. Portland's All-Star power forward scored 31 points and gathered in a career-high 25 rebounds in leading the way to a 111-104 victory.

The victory improved the Blazers to 19-4, the best record in the Western Conference, in their first TNT appearance of the season. With Marv Albert, Steve Kerr and David Aldridge -- the premier broadcasting crew in the business -- on hand at courtside, Aldridge was at the top of his game.

"That's the best game I've seen L.A. play -- ever," said Nicolas Batum, in his sixth season as a teammate of Aldridge's in Portland. "He has improved every year, and right now he is the best power forward in the league, no doubt. And I don't think he's even reached his full potential yet."

Scary to think Aldridge could get better after the first 30/25 performance in franchise history.

"He's a load," acting Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. "I can't remember seeing someone who takes so many hard, contested, fall-away jump shots and consistently makes them. He is really, really good."

Aldridge did make a bunch of fall-away jumpers, but he also made several nice moves to the basket, as has been his tendency during this storybook of a season so far.

Funny thing is, Aldridge was cold early. He missed his first five shots, was 1 for 8 at one point and had only eight points at halftime.

But the guy Moda Center denizens have begun to serenade with "M-V-P!" chants when he's at the foul line made 11 of his last 14 attempts from the field to finish 12 for 22. He scored 23 points, with 15 boards, in the second half.

"I started slow," Aldridge said. "Couldn't make a shot for a while. But then I found a rhythm the third quarter, and it stayed with me the rest of the way."

What was the problem at first?

"I was anxious," he said. "I was getting to my spot a little easier than normal. I was just rushing it. But I went to the side, watched video (on his IPad) and saw if I took my time, I'd be good."

Aldridge's top sidekick on the night was Robin Lopez, who continues to perform at both ends like a player worthy of All-Star acclaim. The twin brother of the Nets' Brook Lopez had 16 points and 10 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season -- already a career high -- and played Houston's Dwight Howard man up most of the night.

Howard was a load, too, dropping in 32 points (one short of his season high) on 14-of-22 shooting while collaring 17 rebounds and blocking three shots.

"Robin took the challenge to guard (Howard) straight up," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "Rather than give up an easy two, he made him work for it. To be able to help on penetration and guard Dwight -- Robin was very effective in both. It took (the Rockets') 3's out of the game. We were able to minimize what they did there."

Houston entered the game ranked No. 2 in the NBA in made 3-point shots, averaging 10 a game. The Rockets finished 5 for 20 from beyond the arc. James Harden was his usual whirlwind, scoring 32 points, with seven assists and six rebounds, but the rest of the Rockets were pretty much passé.

"Dwight's at his most effective when he's drawing double-teams and kicking the ball out, and they're able to get some open 3's," Lopez said. "We were focused on letting him getting his. We just didn't want anybody else to get off too bad."

Last season, Aldridge averaged a career-high 9.1 rebounds. This season, the eighth-year pro has kicked it up to 10.6 boards, ranking fifth in the league and behind only league leader Kevin Love of Minnesota (13.8) among power forwards.

"Maybe God gave me this gift for this season," Aldridge began when asked to explain the upsurge. Then he added, "I've been in the paint more this year. It's about getting older. I understand where I should be on rebounds."

Aldridge also gave credit to the acquisition of the 7-foot Lopez, who is averaging 8.7 rebounds.

"He blocks out his guy, at the least," Aldridge said. "In the past, I didn't have that guy who would at least hold off his man. I would hold off my guy, and his guy would go get (the rebound)."

Added Stotts: "L.A. is very determined. Robin helps occupy some people, and he goes and gets them. Rebounding is a lot of individual will. Some of those rebounds tonight, (Aldridge) was really persistent to go get."

Portland won despite a lousy shooting first half. At one point late in the half, the Blazers were 12 for 40 (.300) and still down only 38-34. They trailed 44-43 at the half with a .326 shooting percentage.

That changed in the second half, when the Blazers made 24 of 43 attempts (.558) to finish the game at .438.

"For us to beat a good team like that without shooting the ball well says a lot about us," said Portland point guard Damian Lillard, who was 1 for 10 from the field and finished with eight points, his second-lowest scoring output of the season.

The Rockets hung around, drawing to within 97-95 on Harden's three-point play with 4:45 remaining. But Portland guard Wesley Matthews hit a step-back jumper and then finished an 11-1 run with a three-point play for a 108-96 edge.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - LaMarcus Aldridge (center) celebrates another Blazers victory with teammates Damian Lillard (left) and Robin Lopez.The Blazers were in a bit of awe over Aldridge's performance.

"L.A. was fantastic," Stotts said. "He was doing everything. The game was coming to him. Big rebounds, big shots -- kick it out of the post when he needed to -- he did it all."

"What was I thinking? Get him the ball," said Matthews, who had 18 points but made only 6 of 16 shots. "He's playing at an awfully high level, with a lot of confidence."

"Playing next to L.A. makes my job very easy," Lopez said. "He's an unbelievable two-way player. Everybody sees him getting it done on offense, but on defense, having him back there, I know I'm not the only guy protecting the rim. And he's been unbelievably tenacious crashing the boards at both ends. He's getting second-chance points now. That makes it rough on a defender."

"L.A.'s more focused on rebounding," said Batum, who had his usual versatile night, with 15 points, six rebounds and six assists. "He's more aggressive on defense. He's more vocal. He's a captain now. He's more mature. He grew up. He's playing the best I've ever seen him play."

As the Blazers embark on a four-game road trip that begins Saturday night at Philadelphia, they are riding high but also mindful that there is more yet to prove.

"We're growing in confidence," Stotts said. "We go into games with a certain level of confidence, but we realize that we're playing hard and our success is because we're playing hard. It's not coming easy. Our record is what it is, but it's not easy. We have to compete every night."

"We realize we've come as a bit of a surprise to some teams," Lopez said. "Most of our wins over good teams have come at home. We're anticipating when we play at these team's house, it's going to be tougher."

"We're only 23 games into the season, but we know we can do something special with this team," Batum, said. "We've beaten a lot of good teams -- Oklahoma City, Golden State, San Antonio, Indiana, Houston. Most of them, we played here. Now we have to win some big games on the road. If L.A. keeps playing like this, we will."

If Aldridge has more games like Thursday night, he really will be in the Most Valuable Player discussion.

"It's a blessing," he said. "Tonight, it was needed. I felt good going down the stretch. I'm just trying to do anything to win games."

NOTES -- Portland's 19-4 start is the franchise's best since the 1990-91 team began 21-2. … The Blazers have scored at least 100 points in 10 straight games, their longest streak since 1994. … Aldridge, named last week as the Western Conference's Player of the Week for the second time this season, becomes the first NBA player to record 30 points, 25 rebounds and two blocked shots since Sacramento's Chris Webber in 2001. … Aldridge's previous career rebounding high was 23. The franchise record is 27 by Sidney Wicks in 1975. … Batum has made at least one 3-pointer in a career-high 23 straight games. … Aldridge, eighth in the league in scoring at 23.5 points a game, has scored at least 20 points in 18 games this season. … Sampson ran the Rockets in the absence of Kevin McHale, whose mother died Tuesday night. Her memorial service is Friday. McHale will also miss the Rockets' Friday night game at Golden State, but could return for Sunday's visit to Sacramento.

Terrence Jones, a Portland native, made his first NBA start in his hometown for the Rockets. Jones, who came into the game averaging 12.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.79 blocked shots, with six double-doubles in his 14 starts, had 10 points and only two rebounds in 29 minutes. "We're ecstatic with the way he has played," Sampson said before the game. "We weren't sure about that position. We were committed to the Omer Asik-Howard lineup early. When the season started, Terrence got put on the shelf. He hung in there, didn't get down, and when we decided to go away from it, he was ready to go."… Portland rookie C.J. McCollum, who has missed the entire season with a broken left foot, has been cleared for some basketball activity and was shooting with his teammates prior to the game. "He's gradually building up to when he will be able to practice," Stotts said. "There is no timeline for his return. I'm anxious for him, because it's been really tough on him. He's anxious to play."

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