TUALATIN, Ore. — There were no signs of party balloons inside the Trail Blazer practice facility on Thursday afternoon.
No bouquet of roses.
Not even a red carpet stretching from the trainer’s room to the hardwood.
But, maybe there should have been some sense of celebration.
After participating in a full session of various situational drills, LaMarcus Aldridge proclaimed his return from a sprained right ankle, healthy enough to play Friday night against the Houston Rockets. So, one can imagine how grateful teammates received these next words.
“I practiced and I felt good, so I’m going to go,” Aldridge announced on Thursday.
Strike up the band and cue the streamers. For the slumping Blazers (33-42), the reappearance of Aldridge signifies a move back to normal — and for that matter, becoming more competitive.
In the six games this season in which Aldridge has missed, the Blazers have won only once. Plus, after Aldridge, who averages 21 points and 8.9 rebounds, sprained his ankle during the March 27 matchup against the Brooklyn Nets, the Blazers have piled on their losing streak that now stands at six consecutive games.
“He’s our best player. All-Star of the team,” point guard Damian Lillard said. “It hurts when we don’t have him on the floor.”
Lillard welcomes Aldridge back with open arms, understanding the significance just by having his normal pick-and-roll partner on the floor. When Aldridge sits out, Lillard carries on with his usual responsibility of ball handling but must work around screens set by J.J. Hickson, Meyers Leonard or Joel Freeland — and none of those names appear very high on the opponent’s scouting report. Consequently, often defenders zero in on Lillard.
On Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, although Lillard cashed in half of his six assists to Hickson — who screened then rolled and finished the trio of passes at the basket — Portland’s bread-and-butter play did not always end effectively for its primary point guard.
Lillard made 8 of 19 shots — twice he converted the pick-and-roll for layups but the majority of his offense came through transition jump shots and movement without the ball, which takes more effort than simply passing off to a two-time All-Star who’s money from the midrange.
Generally, when Aldridge misses games, scoring becomes more laborious for Lillard, the presumptive favorite to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award. This season, Lillard averages 19 points on 43.1 percent shooting accuracy. However without Aldridge, those numbers have dipped to 16.5 points and 37.5 percent.
“When I’m in the pick-and-roll with (Aldridge), teams might value him more than they value me coming off,” Lillard said. “When you don’t have him out there, teams are pursuing me a little bit more coming off. Not only is it harder for me to make a play to score, but it’s harder to make a pass because they’re swarming me. You’ve got a 6-foot-8 to 6-11 guy chasing you with his hands up, so it’s harder to make a pass. Where as if L.A. is rolling or popping away from it, (the defender) might worry about getting back to him and might have a little more space.”
Following the practice, Aldridge said that he sensed how the team focused the session with 3-on-2, 2-on-1 and even 1-on-1 drills specifically designed to help him get back into rhythm. Now that he expects to play again Friday night, Aldridge hopes to help his team rediscover its rhythm.
“It’s hard to play and not have that many veterans out there or not understand how to win sometimes,” Aldridge said about the young Blazers. “I think we’re definitely in the games and we’re capable of winning those games but every possession means something. I think in those games, we had possessions that we gave away really that we needed.”