On Tuesday night in the Moda Center, the Houston Rockets beat the Trail Blazers by a score of 116-101. The Rockets’ James Harden led all scorers with 33 points, to go with 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Dwight Howard added 29 points and 13 rebounds. Houston point guard Patrick Beverly played, surprising many after sitting out Friday’s game with a torn muscle in his midsection. The Blazers fell to 2-2 on the season despite 22 points from Damian Lillard, 21 from LaMarcus Aldridge, and 19 from Wesley Mathews. Blah, blah, blah, blah—enough facts from the game. Go find a box score or something; this is still the Internet, after all. Don’t go just yet though because there’s something more powerful and more interesting to discuss than any self-important numbers. Terry Stotts has become a weaver of beautiful dreams. LaMarcus, the Aldridge, played center.
With 1:58 remaining in the second quarter and the Blazers trailing 52-47, Dorrell Wright checked in for Thomas Robinson, and to make way, Aldridge slid over to the five for the first time this season. Aldridge has long made clear his distaste for playing center and as a result, most of the Blazers’ lineups either maintain two natural big men or force a center like Robin Lopez to play up front alongside Wright, or whatever other wing is put in that role. As Stotts espouses the value of pushing tempo and finding open shooters on the wing in a high-paced attack, the normal reality of two classical big men on the court together runs in exact opposition to that ethos, even if one of those bigs runs the floor as well as Aldridge does. For a team to truly realize it’s potential as a running, three-point shooting offensive juggernaut, it must find a way to get that extra shooter on the floor to improve spacing, open up driving lanes, and deter defenders from lending help. Even the “boring, old-fashioned” San Antonio Spurs do this with Matt Bonner or Kawhi Leonard at the 4. The Blazers’ typical smaller lineups with Lopez or Freeland at center are nice and polite and do their job, but it becomes impossible to not see Aldridge on the sideline and imagine the devastating effect that such an underrated post defender and superb pick-and-pop big man would have on a unit already boasting four shooters, an aggressive point guard, and two versatile wings. The opposing center would have to leave his preferred post under the basket to respect Aldridge’s jumper and there would be no back line defense when Lillard attacks the rim and the defense would have to collapse and then the Blazers would have open threes and I’m getting so excited again that I could just wake up one of my roommates right now and slap them. It’s that real.
But please, don’t get too caught up in the early returns. Guernica took more than a couple hours to draw. The Blazers will need some time to acclimatize to the heights they’re capable of reaching. The first stretch of Wright and Aldridge together, the last 2 minutes of the first half, only saw the Blazers maintain the five-point deficit and go into halftime down 55-50. The next period of time began with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter and the Houston lead at 67-52. Robin Lopez replaced Aldridge with 2:39 to go and although the deficit still sat at 15 points, the Blazers had scored an impressive 13 points in those four minutes. Unfortunately, Portland simply had no answers for Houston’s superstar duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard, especially when they were combining in the pick-and-roll. The final stretch started when LaMarcus returned with 10:11 in the fourth quarter and finished when Nicolas Batum entered for Wright with 7:24 to go. Again, the cushion did not change, from 88-78 to 98-88, but the Blazer offense at least looked more potent. Aldridge pulled Howard away from the rim enough for Lillard to find the driving lanes that had been earlier unavailable, and the Blazers also had more open looks from the perimeter. In total, Aldridge played up front next to Wright for 12 total minutes and in that time, the Blazers played the Rockets exactly even. In a game with a 15-point differential otherwise, 12 minutes of even basketball is a strong showing.
Whether the lineup will be seen again or if it will return to only the collective dreamscape of Blazer fans is still somewhat uncertain. As The Columbian’s Erik Gunderson reported, Dorrell Wright has spoken previously on his background and willingness to play as a stretch four for the Blazers, but Aldridge is really the key here. Maybe he saw the potential at center within this group or maybe it was just something he did an emergency to help the team. Not to be overlooked, the biggest motives for the smaller lineup were the foul trouble early and often to Robin Lopez and Meyers Leonard, Leonard’s general lack of quality, and that regular backup center Joel Freeland was seated behind the bench in a suit as he nursed his hip injury. But don’t count out Terry Stotts’ vision and capacity to weave dreams. After all, he put a lineup out in the fourth quarter with Aldridge at center, Batum at the 4, and all three guards – Wes Matthews, Mo Williams, and Lillard – out at the three-point line.
Sleep well, children.