A slow-waking panic washed over The City of Roses for the better part of last month. Once giddy fans were turning a pasty shade, the fear of what was happening unable to hide from the masses. Losses were mounting, ball movement was stopping and more empty seats were popping up at the Moda Center.
It appeared the dream season was quickly turning to a real-life nightmare. Then, in an instant, it was over.
The Trail Blazers, once 25–4 and flying high, were in the midst of their worst stretch of basketball in over a year. All of the magical play early in the season was fading—the chip on their shoulders that lead to the early season success was replaced by a laissez-faire attitude, and with it the losses mounted.
Then, in one 48-minute stretch, we were reminded of the past.
LaMarcus Aldridge made his triumphant return from injury on March 27, after an 0–3 start to their final road trip of the season, a season that was slipping away by the hour.
And in one night, everything changed.
His stats were good, sure. His presence was better. The mystique was back, carried on his wide 6-foot 11-inch frame. The All-Star—maligned and picked apart his whole career—marked his place in franchise history in one night.
The ball movement was back, the defense was relevant, and more than anything, the swagger was back.
“LA,” was Mo Wiliams’ answer to a simple question following the game. The question? “What changed?”
“I think having him back allows everyone else to fall back in place,” Damian Lillard told The Oregonian after LA’s return. “Without him, some of us have to raise our game. But it has to be collective. With him out there, guys are able to just…the game just comes easier to everybody when he is out there.”
Aldridge has been a polarizing player during his time in Portland. Blessed with unmatched potential, fans often yearned for him to dominate, to be the cornerstone of a franchise so often burned by its big men. While never a bust, Aldridge appeared stuck in fourth gear for years—a solid player, borderline All-Star, but never in the upper-echelon. That began to change when he made his first All-Star game two years ago, and rose last year when he made it again.
Given a solid front-court mate, some bench help and a fellow All-Star in Lillard, and for the first time this season, Aldridge has been the player fans have been clamoring for—a legitimate MVP candidate.
After missing all but a handful of games since the All-Star break because of two separate injuries, Aldridge’s return sparked something in the Blazers that was so clearly missing in his presence, but never fully realized by a fan base who keeps their guard up. It was too easy to say the early season success was a fluke, the MVP chants a mistake. But Aldridge proved, in one night, just what has been missing for most of the past two months.
Perhaps those Moda Center MVP chants weren’t far off.