Aldridge becomes Blazers’ No. 1 option

TUALATIN, Ore. — Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge is the new No. 1.

With Portland All-Star guard Brandon Roy out through at least the first round of the playoffs, Aldridge immediately becomes the team’s primary option on offense.

How will the fourth-year forward answer the call?

The only way he knows: by being himself and staying true to his game.

“I’m going to be the same,” said Aldridge, following a Friday morning workout at the team’s practice facility. “I’m not going to take more shots or try to prove anything. I’m going to do what I’ve been doing all season. I think I’ve been aggressive. I’ve been unselfish. And I’m going to play that same way.”

That way has unquestionably been the right way since the All-Star break. Portland went 19-8 down the stretch, while Aldridge played
the best ball of his career.

Pushing his game toward the low block and maximizing his diverse array of talents, the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Aldridge finished the season ranked second on the team in average scoring (17.9) and third in rebounding (8.0) while shooting 49.5 percent from the field. Moreover, Aldridge averaged a team-high 19.7 points during the Blazers’ final 44 games of the season.

Aldridge said he has not changed this season. If he is mentally and physically tougher, it is simply because his game has evolved.

But one aspect of Aldridge’s impressive offensive attack stands out: his newfound, consistent ability to punish opponents on the low block.

Aldridge has long been one of the top forwards in the game in regards to perimeter shooting. But the sight of Aldridge digging in on the low block, twisting and turning to find an edge, and then exploding toward the basket for a smooth finish has altered the shape and direction of Portland’s offense.

It is not a coincidence.

“I would say my game is growing more toward the block,” Aldridge said. “I looked at some chart — I haven’t made that many 18-footers in the last two months; all my points are in the paint.

“I think as you get older and you get stronger and you learn the game more, you tend to go either way. I think my game is going more toward the block, which I like. Because I think I still make an 18-foot jump shot every now and then.”

Aldridge’s final sentence was followed by laughter, and he appeared comfortable, confident and at ease while being swarmed by the media Friday. The former Texas standout also showed no ill effects from a stomach virus that forced him to be hospitalized overnight Tuesday, and sit out Portland’s regular-season finale against Golden State.

“He looked fine,” McMillan said. “He didn’t have those heavy eyes the day that we saw he was sick. He looked good.”

Aldridge will have to be better than good for the injury-prone No. 6 Blazers to have a chance against No. 3 Phoenix.

The teams’ first-round best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series tips off at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Phoenix.

The Suns are best known for their high-powered offense — Phoenix ranked No. 1 out of 30 NBA teams in average scoring (110.2), field-goal percentage (49.2) and 3-point percentage (41.2). But the Steve Nash-led Suns are also guided by a revamped defense that allowed the team to finish the season with the best record in the league after the All-Star break at 23-6.

To hold down Phoenix, McMillan said Portland must hold down the tempo. The Blazers will have to sharply execute their offensive sets in their entirety, and not be lulled into taking quick jump shots that lead to fast-break points for the Suns.

Aldridge will be the focus of the majority of those sets. And as Portland attempts to run an inside-out offense that seeks a high-percentage field-goal attempt while milking the shot clock, Aldridge will be asked to carry the most weight.

He said he is ready for the load — and the challenge.

“Nate always challenges me to speak up, be more vocal, be more of a leader,” Aldridge said. “He always tells me that Brandon and myself can do it together. I think this season, I’ve tried to be more vocal and be more of a leader. So, I think it’s going to be a little bit easier to try to lead now.”

Roy underwent successful arthroscopic surgery Friday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. He has been ruled out of Portland’s first-round series against Phoenix. The team put Roy’s timeframe to return at 1-2 weeks. “We knew he had to have it. It was just a matter of when,” McMillan said. “Brandon went through some things (Thursday) on his own … and just felt like after going through that, talking to the doctors, it was best not to even try practicing.” … McMillan said Fernandez will start at shooting guard against the Suns, replacing Roy in the lineup. “I have experience for these playoff games,” Fernandez said. “But right now, it’s a different situation.” … Portland center Marcus Camby rolled his left ankle during Friday’s practice. Camby jumped up and came down on forward Jeff Pendergraph. Camby’s ankle was heavily wrapped following practice, but he said he will be ready to go for Game 1. “I rolled it a couple times since I’ve been here,” Camby said. “But I should be fine. I’m not worried about it.”

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