PORTLAND — Two power forwards stepped onto the court before tip-off. One was a two-time regular-season MVP, three-time Finals MVP and four-time NBA champion. The other was the one worth paying to see.
Two teams stepped onto the court before tip-off. One owned the best record in the NBA and was on pace to become the second 70-win team in league history. The other was the one that dominated.
LaMarcus Aldridge and the Trail Blazers took predictability Tuesday and pile-drove it through the Rose Garden floor, trouncing the Spurs, 99-86.
It’s probably premature to say that this win marked a turning point for Portland (26-22), but it is impossible to say that the Blazers weren’t turning heads.
Was this the biggest game of the year?
“It has to be,” Aldridge said. “This is the best team in the league and I don’t think anybody else could say that because they actually have the record to prove it.”
Aldridge did a little proving himself Tuesday. His career-high 40 points against the league’s best may have been the closing argument for his All-Star case. His dominance over Spurs forward Tim Duncan may have been the latest testimony suggesting he is among the NBA’s power-forward elite.
Aldridge received a standing ovation from the home crowd when he checked out with 1:03 remaining in the game, but the most poignant gesture may have came from the man who was most vehemently rooting against him — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
“Pop shook my hand after the game,” said Aldridge, who scored 16 points in the first quarter, went 16 for 23 from the field and tallied 11 rebounds. “He’s never shaken my hand before, so I’ll take that as a good sign.”
The Blazers outscored the Spurs 28-15 in the fourth quarter and led by as many as 15 points. But there was little auspice early on.
San Antonio (40-8) nabbed three offensive rebounds on the opening possession and jumped out to an 11-4 lead. It took a five-point advantage into halftime, and then the Blazers exploded.
Lost amid Aldridge’s prowess was Portland guard Wesley Matthews, who scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half.
Hidden behind Aldridge’s supremacy was Andre Miller, who posted 18 points and nine assists.
Buried beneath Aldridge’s masterpiece was the fact that Portland shot 50.7 percent from the field, 87.5 percent from the free-throw line and committed just 10 turnovers.
But Aldridge, quite simply, had a monopoly on the spotlight Tuesday.
He mixed and matched jump shots and post moves throughout the game. He hit 8 of his 9 free throws and tossed in three steals for good measure.
Perhaps the game’s definitive play came midway through the fourth quarter, when after the Blazers missed three consecutive 3-pointers, Aldridge scooped up the offensive rebound, laid it in, and put his team up by four.
“He had a decent game, didn’t he?” said Popovich, who will coach the Western Conference All Star team later this month. “I think we held him to 40, or 35. … I stopped counting it after a while. I don’t know what it was. Obviously he had a great game.”
The Blazers have struggled in the fourth quarter throughout the season, particularly against the league’s better teams. And when Spurs guard Manu Ginobili tied the game on a pull-up 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter, it appeared that Portland fans might be seeing more of the same.
Nope. Not this time. Not even close.
“Constant reminders to play and make plays. I said that definitely every time out,” Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. “I thought tonight we played San Antonio, we weren’t watching like we did in the Boston game. It just showed that it can happen.”
Tuesday marked the second time this season the Blazers have beaten a team that currently has 30 wins, the first coming via a victory over the Magic in early December.
But Portland can’t savor this too long considering it plays six of its next seven games on the road, including the Nuggets in Denver tonight.
Ginobili led the Spurs with 17 points, Duncan added 15, and center DeJuan Blair pitched in 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
Blazers center Chris Johnson, who was called up from the Developmental League last week, scored the first two points of his NBA career with two free throws.