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Trail Blazers lean on their leader

Aldridge's hot start sends Rockets back to drawing board


HOUSTON — As LaMarcus Aldridge sauntered down the hallway to the Trail Blazers' locker room after Sunday night's exhilarating 122-120 overtime victory over Houston at the Toyota Center, assistant coach Kim Hughes had a butt pop and four words of wisdom for the man of the hour:

“Three more to go."

As in, three more victories to eliminate the Rockets, claim Portland's first playoff series victory since 2000 and move on to the second round.

Everyone understands it won't be easy, but the route to success got a little shorter with the road victory that instantly gave the Blazers homecourt advantage in the best-of-seven series, which swings to the Moda Center for Games 3 and 4 this weekend.

Some observations, facts and figures as the Blazers and Rockets prepare to match up for Wednesday night's Game 2 at the Toyota Center:by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - LaMarcus Aldridge led the Trail Blazers in Game 1 versus Houston with 46 points and 18 rebounds.

• Every successful playoff team needs at least two players to rise above and beyond and gild the path to the Promised Land. On Sunday night, at least, Aldridge and Damian Lillard were up to the challenge.

Aldridge played like a first-team all-NBA choice and an MVP candidate, setting a franchise playoff record with 46 points to go with 18 rebounds in the opener. Portland's All-Star power forward was 17 for 31 from the field -- matching the most shots he has taken in a professional game -- and even stepped back for a pair of critical 3-pointers.

It tells me Aldridge isn't backing away from his leadership role or his status as the team's No. 1 player.

"Every guy on this team comes to me and talks to me … they believe in me and tell me I can dominate a game, so I'm always hearing that my teammates have my back," Aldridge said. "Those positive affirmations are always good for me.

"I've tried to tell the guys the playoffs (are) another level, another season. ... I wanted to lead in that way."

Aldridge took it upon himself to try to motivate each of the Blazers' five starters before the opener.

"Every guy fought out there," he said. "Every guy took his matchup personal. That was my goal pregame. I wanted everyone to take his matchup personal. I wanted us to have a chip on our shoulder."

The Rockets primarily used second-year pro Terrence Jones to defend Aldridge in single coverage. Late in the game, center Dwight Howard moved over to defend him. Rarely did the Rockets choose to double-team Aldridge. That could change Wednesday night.

"Every game is different," Aldridge said. "They'll come back with a different scheme. They're going to change up some things. We have to be ready for anything they bring. They'll probably have Jones front me and Dwight behind me."

• Aldridge was tickled to break the franchise scoring mark of Bonzi Wells (45, vs Dallas, 2003).

"It's an honor," Aldridge said. "It's surreal. I'm truly blessed. I've been a Trail Blazer all my career. I want to try to break every record I can."

Aldridge has begun to pay attention to franchise career regular-season records. He is near the top in most major statistical categories, including scoring (fourth) and rebounds (third). Topping both of those lists is Clyde Drexler, who was courtside Sunday night serving as the Rockets' television analyst.

Before the game, Aldridge stopped by to say hello to Drexler.

"I always joke with him about trying to break every record," Aldridge said. "I said, 'I'm coming for you.' I meant in every stat possible. He said I can do it."

• Lillard was as poised as a graybeard in his first postseason action.

Battling Houston 1-2 point-guard punch of Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin, Lillard came through with 31 points, nine rebounds, five assists and -- maybe most important -- one turnover in 46 minutes.

Often this season, Lillard has started slowly on offense, allowing his teammates to get into a flow before focusing on working for his own shot. It happened again in Sunday's series opener. Over the last 10 minutes -- the final five of the fourth quarter and the overtime -- Lillard scored 16 points.

Against the pesky Beverley, Lillard offered, "I'm not going to try to do too much, but I'm going to be aggressive. I played aggressive but let the game come to me. I trusted it was going to work out."

And now Beverley may be out after evidently reinjuring a knee he hurt late in the regular season. The lithe, offensively talented Lin would still present a formidable challenge for Lillard, but when Lin and Beverley work in tandem, they become one of the Rockets' major weapons.

• Lillard, incidentally, was asked by a Houston reporter (somewhat curiously) if he considers himself a seasoned player now that he has played in a playoff game.

"I can't consider myself a seasoned player yet," he said. "I heard Tim Duncan has played in 200-plus playoff games (212 to be exact). That's my first one. I'm happy we were able to win it."

• Dwight Howard's Game 1 numbers were quite good -- 27 points, 15 rebounds, four blocked shots.

Houston's All-Star center started the game poorly, though, and opened the door to potential strategy for the rest of the series by buckling to "Hack-a-Howard" tactics in the fourth quarter.

With the Rockets ahead 96-87 with 4:30 remaining, Portland coach Terry Stotts ordered Nicolas Batum to intentionally foul Howard, who shot .547 from the line during the regular season.

Howard made his first two attempts to give Houston a 98-87 lead. He missed the next four as the Blazers rallied to within 98-93. That forced Houston coach Kevin McHale to sit Howard from the 3:29 mark until only 55.6 seconds remained in regulation. Howard wound up making 4 of 5 in the overtime session before fouling out, finishing 9 for 17 from the charity stripe.

"As soon as they were in the bonus (in the fourth quarter), we had to extend the game," Stotts said. "It prolonged the game for us, no matter what he did. It gave us more opportunities."

McHale felt the "Hack-a-Howard" tactics played a key role in swinging momentum to the Blazers.

"That changed things somewhat, yeah it did," he said. "We missed some free throws ... (the Blazers) got a four-point play and we were back on our heels."

• Wesley Matthews worked his tail off defending James Harden, but Harden was the most to blame for his 8-for-28 shooting night.

Houston's All-Star shooting guard missed a number of open mid-range shots and finished 3 for 14 from 3-point range. That's not likely to happen again in the series.

• Portland's Mo Williams was of the same ilk as Harden, looking out of sorts in a sorry 27-minute performance off the bench.

Williams scored three points on 1-for-6 shooting and was fortunate to be discredited with only two turnovers (seemed like at least four). Williams probably won't have another outing like that one, either.

• The Rockets led the NBA in free-throw attempts during the regular season, attempting 31.1 per game. It was shocking they had nary a foul shot in Sunday's first half, while the Blazers were 13 for 17.

Things evened out from there -- Portland finished 29 for 39, Houston 26 for 40 from the line.

Eight of the Rockets' 14 misses came from Howard.

• Both teams will try to shore up the defensive boards.

Houston had 22 offensive rebounds, Portland 17. Houston won the battle of second-chance points 27-25, a category in which the Blazers led the league during the regular season.

• Houston's Chandler Parson was unconscious early, with 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the first quarter.

He finished with 24 points but seemed to lose confidence in his shooting stroke as the game wore on.

The small forward was 7 for 10 from the field, including 3 for 5 from 3-point range, in the first half. He was 3 for 11, including 0 for 6 on treys, after intermission.

His matchup with Portland's Nicolas Batum will again be key in Game 2.

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