Column: While the critics critique, Aldridge searches for answers
Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said he knows it’s out there.
The scathing criticism. The indictments. The armchair jury eager to convict; the internet critics ready to rip.
All the old accusations, reborn and reignited, already making the rounds. Surely to go viral should the Blazers’ season come to a crashing halt with a weak first-round exit against the Phoenix Suns.
Leading the assault: Aldridge is soft. Overpaid. He doesn’t want it badly enough. He doesn’t have what it takes to carry the weight.
Aldridge heard it all earlier this season, relayed loud and clear by friends and family, when he initially took on a lesser role in Portland’s offense after signing a five-year, $65 million contract extension.
Now, he’s fully aware that the vultures are circling again.
“I’m used to tuning stuff out,” Aldridge said Friday, following a practice at the team’s workout facility in Tualatin, Ore. “And that’s what I do now.”
But that sharp, ringing, piercing sound is going to get a whole lot louder — and a whole lot harder to tune out — if Aldridge does not discover a way to either outmaneuver, outwork or outthink the double and triple teams the Suns have instantly been sending his way the second he touches the ball during a Western Conference first-round playoff series.
Through three games, the second-largest piece in Portland’s puzzle ranks second on the team with 16.7 average points and leads the Blazers in field-goal attempts (42). But Aldridge is shooting just 38.1 percent from the floor while collecting only 4.7 average rebounds — both well below his season totals.
Those are all statistical facts. Indisputable, incontrovertible and unassailable.
But Aldridge said there’s a whole other world his critics fail to grasp.
To Aldridge, this is what playing the Suns through Games 1-3 has felt like: Battling a two-headed monster with one arm tied behind his back.
“You try to be efficient and you try to be aggressive. But when a team is really trying to take you out, there’s really nothing you can do. So, it’s been really frustrating for me,” Aldridge said.
He added: “I’m really, really trying to do everything I can. People who don’t know the game really can’t see what (the Suns are) doing. They just see that I’m not having 25 or 30 points. They don’t see I’m still getting 17 points with a double team for the whole game. It’s just tough.”
Aldridge acknowledged that he reached a breaking point midway through the Blazers’ Game 3 blowout defeat to Phoenix at the Rose Garden.
Aldridge started the game 0 for 6 from the floor — he did not record a field goal until 3 minutes, 5 seconds remained in the second quarter — and picked up two quick fouls. Meanwhile, Portland was demolished. The Suns took a 66-37 lead into halftime, and the Blazers were serenaded by boos from their home-court crowd as they ran into their locker room.
Through six consecutive quarters, Phoenix outscored Portland 185-127. And any magic the Blazers possessed after stealing Game 1 on the road had evaporated into dust.
So, Aldridge came out of the break changed and charged. He scored seven points on 3-of-5 shooting. He started posting up faster and attacking harder. And Portland whittled the Suns’ 31-point lead down to … 21.
“It still wasn’t good,” Aldridge said. “But as long as I know I’m trying to do everything I can, I can live with it. Whenever I feel like I’m not giving my total effort, that’s when I can’t live with it. But I’m giving it everything I can right now.”
But it’s still not enough.
And that’s not a knock on Aldridge. That’s just the way things are right now.
With Brandon Roy in street clothes, helplessly watching from the bench, everything had to go absolutely right for the Blazers to advance to the second round for the first time since 2000.
It has not happened. Starting forward Nicolas Batum’s ailing right shoulder is being propped up by duct tape. Starting shooting guard Rudy Fernandez is knocking down just 35.3 percent of his field-goal attempts, and 12 of his 22 points in the series came in Game 3 garbage time. Meanwhile, Phoenix is playing its best basketball of the season after a Game 1 no show.
Now, the Blazers are starting at a 2-1 deficit that feels much more like 3-0 with tonight’s Game 4 set at US Airways Center in Phoenix, rather than a roaring Rose Garden.
“Everyone’s writing us off,” Portland center Marcus Camby said.
With the memory of the Blazers’ soft showing last season during a first-round defeat to Houston still leaving a mark, Aldridge is receiving the deepest, darkest cuts.
But Rip City’s No. 2 — currently being asked to carry the weight of a No. 1 — said Portland will do what it has done all season: fight on, and try and find a way to survive.
“I think we will. Guys are trying to figure it out. Guys are trying to get better, including myself” Aldridge said. “I’m trying to figure out what I can do to be better. Which times to go harder on double teams, and what pass to make. Watching film to see who’s open. I think everybody’s trying to do better.”
Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Blazer Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/blazerbanter