Blazers in glorious fifth place

PORTLAND — That nod.

LaMarcus Aldridge’s chin, bobbing up and down, screaming confidence, exuding assurance, all but guaranteeing victory.

Who knows what the signature play was for the Blazers Wednesday. Perhaps the fake timeout Andre Miller turned into a layup, or the tip jam Aldridge opened with in the fourth quarter?

But in Portland’s 103-96 win over the Hornets, the signature gesture was obvious — the LA head nod.

“I was just trying to get the crowd into it,” said Aldridge who was once again the game’s leading scorer, this time dropping 34 points. “I think guys were really turned up for this one. I know I was…They (New Orleans) smashed us by 20 twice.”

Aldridge first nodded after the aforementioned tip jam — the power forward skying to rebound Rudy Fernandez’s missed 3-pointer, smashing it through the hoop with one hand, then bowing his chin to the crowd.

He whipped it out again seven minutes later, nailing a seven-foot jump shot, drawing the foul, and giving Portland its first lead of the second half.

There was something about the gesture that reflected the recent metamorphosis of this team — one once notorious for squandering fourth-quarter leads, to one certain it will recover from fourth quarter deficits.

“I hate to say this, but I was pacing in the the third,” Aldridge said. “I was kind of tired, so I wasn’t trying to take that many shots, so I was kind of pacing in the third to wait to the fourth to try to go to the basket.”
It was worth the wait. And at this point, Aldridge can say just about anything he wants.

With the Hornets (33-25) leading by six to open the final period, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week scored 12 points over the last 12 minutes to nudge the Blazers toward their season-high sixth straight win. Aldridge added seven rebounds while going 13 of 18 from the field and 8 of 9 from the line.

And when the final buzzer sounded, the incessantly depleted Blazers (32-24) found themselves in a once unfathomable position — fifth place in the Western Conference heading into the All Star break.

“I like where we are right now as far as what happened and trying to finish off strong,” Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. “The thing is continue to win. You start watching the standings when you’re losing.”

While Aldridge being denied an All Star bid continues to be a contentious point of discussion in Portland, there is one Blazer who will be heading to Los Angeles this weekend — Wesley Matthews.

The second-year player will partake in Friday’s Rookie-Sophomore game, a selection he justified Wednesday by scoring 24 points on 8 of 13 shooting.

Before the game, McMillan issued a challenged to Matthews, asserting that Portland signed him to deliver at this stage of the season. The challenge was met.

“It feels good to be part of a team that’s clicking,” Matthews said. “We’re molding, we’re growing.”

Frequently finding Matthews off screens and curl cuts was Miller, but the point guard’s true highlight came in the third quarter, when McMillan ordered a timeout.

At this point, players from both teams began ambling toward the sideline, thinking the timeout would be called, but when Miller crossed half court, he saw an opening for the hoop and drove in for a layup.

“I was going to call the time out, but then I saw that everyone was walking toward the bench, so I was like ‘OK’ and it just happened,” said Miller, who finished with 18 points and seven assists. “For a second, I thought it was a bad decision because it looked like it was going to get blocked, and if it did get blocked, it would have been a bad decision.”

Added McMillan.

“It wasn’t called,” McMillan said. “But that’s just experience. It was a great read. He finished, that’s why it was a great read.”

The Blazers held Chris Paul to eight points and five assists. David West led New Orleans with 27 points.

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