Originally Published: December 4, 2013

1. Aldridge Keeps Portland Red-Hot, Rolling

By Danny Nowell | TrueHoop Network

PORTLAND, Ore. -- This week was supposed to be a reality check for the Portland Trail Blazers. Having feasted, mostly, on the league's bottom (read: Eastern) half during their 11-game win streak, the Trail Blazers faced consecutive elite opponents for the first time since Games 2 and 3 of the season, when the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs both visited. After dispatching the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-104 on Wednesday night, however, the Blazers appear to have made kindling out of the stretch that was supposed to cool them off.

For one half, this game looked like the upstart Blazers were set to receive a lesson from the more accomplished visitors. Though Portland hung tough through two quarters, an OKC surge at the end of the second half punctuated by a Terry Stotts technical pushed the Thunder lead to 11 at halftime; it seemed the team with Finals experience was grinding out a road victory on the second night of a back-to-back, riding their superstar scorer and finding ways to manufacture garbage buckets. In the second half, LaMarcus Aldridge changed that.

LeMarcus Aldridge
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhen LaMarcus Aldridge stepped out of the paint, he was deadly with his smooth jumper.

If the Blazers have been the West's biggest surprise, they are nonetheless powered by Aldridge, their longest-tenured player and lone All-Star. Aldridge is eight years into what has been a difficult and often fraught career with Portland, having endured the collapse of the Nate McMillan era, franchise-altering injuries to teammates and an awkward relationship with the local media. But with all of the new faces brought in the past two seasons, Aldridge remains the focal point of the team, and his scorching second half proved that his relationship with the franchise is still plenty fruitful.

In the third frame, Aldridge was sensational, shooting 8-of-9 from the field -- all on jump shots -- while posting 16 points as the Blazers turned their 11-point deficit into a three-point lead. In the fourth, he bedeviled Serge Ibaka and the rest of the Thunder with an array of pump fakes, turnarounds and putbacks that kept the Blazers afloat while Kevin Durant did his best to render it moot. Aldridge finished with 38 points and 13 rebounds, outshining even his stellar 25-and-10 performance against Indiana. His teammates, and the Moda Center crowd, noticed.

With Aldridge at the line to ice the game in the fourth quarter, he received what might have been the first "M-V-P" chants of his career, and when reporters asked teammate Nic Batum postgame what he thought of the cheers, his response was simple: "Finally." There is obviously little significance to be found in fans' cheers, but to a man, the Blazers are going out of their way to praise their power forward and make sure his performances receive the praise they're due. Wes Matthews summed up what several Trail Blazers attested: "I've been saying it from the start -- he's the best power forward in the game. ... He's awesome right now."

For his own part, Aldridge is more comfortable than he's ever been. "Our team chemistry is unreal right now," he said after the game. Asked whether he's having the most fun of his career, he responded, "Yeah, this is a fun team. I keep saying it because guys are so unselfish, and we play together -- it's fun."

Now that the Blazers have legitimized their early win streak with wins against back-to-back top-flight opponents, it's fair to say that the fun is making its way to the court. Portland's franchise player has been on 50-win teams and lottery teams alike, but his comfort level seems to be at an all-time high, and the Blazers are reaping the rewards.

Danny Nowell writes for the TrueHoop network. Follow him on Twitter @dmnowell

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