PORTLAND — LaMarcus Aldridge made his dramatic return Saturday, playing through a torn ligament in his left thumb.
And by night’s end, he was showered with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” as the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Washington Wizards 103-96.
Aldridge had 24 points, nine rebounds and a game-sealing steal.
He even got a post-game curtain call from PA announcer Mark Mason as he walked off the court after giving a TV interview.
“I didn’t even know that he was waiting on me,” Aldridge said. “It was kind of surreal. That was a fun moment.”
Aldridge’s presence changed the game but perhaps no play showed the difference he makes for the Blazers than an inbounds play in the final minutes.
Damian Lillard and the Blazers have had a tough go getting good shots over the past week in the fourth quarter. Head coach Terry Stotts drew up a baseline out-of-bounds play for Aldridge to get a post-up.
A double-team came, instantly he zipped the ball to a wide open Lillard for the shot to put the Blazers up by 7 with 2:49 left.
“As soon as he turned, he saw me and I was wide open,” Lillard said. “It was a practice shot.”
The return galvanized Aldridge’s teammates.
“Even if he didn’t have the monster game that he did, I think his presence and his sacrifice of his own body and for him to recognize how special this season is and can be and continue to be, for him to give that up to be out there with us in the trenches, it speaks volumes,” Wesley Matthews said.
Aldridge came out firing, taking 10 shots and scoring 10 points in the first quarter. But Aldridge’s performance wasn’t enough to keep up with the Wizards as nearly everybody else struggled early. The Wizards led by 10 at halftime.
There was no big pre-game speech from Aldridge, only a game-changing presence.
“He’s not really going to say too much,” said Will Barton who got a post-game shout out from Stotts for his defense on Bradley Beal. “That’s just who he is. He just handles his business. He’s not a real big talker. He just does his job and does it well. Does it better than a lot of people.”
Aldridge also made some adjustments in his game. He injured his thumb going for a steal and when defending in the post, Aldridge shied away from using his signature move.
“That’s very hard because that’s who I am,” Aldridge said about not being able to use the move. “But I’ll be OK. I’ll just try not to do it for now.”
In the third quarter, the Blazers started to tighten things up on the defensive end. Barton started the second half over Allen Crabbe, who got the start for the injured Nicolas Batum, but played only seven minutes.
Aldridge gave the Blazers their first lead with a long two-point jumper with 1:42 left in the third quarter. The Blazers also contained Nene much better in the second half after he went for 13 points in the first half.
He didn’t have a great shooting night but the Blazers leaned on Aldridge all game. When possessions looked like they were about to come up empty, the safety blanket was there to at least get up a shot.
The play of the third quarter came on a broken possession. Barton hustled to save a ball that was going into the backcourt and threw a desperation no-look pass over his shoulder right to Dorell Wright who completed a 4-point play.
Washington’s Paul Pierce hit his 2,000th career 3-pointer in the third quarter, but that was about the only good thing to happen for the Wizards in third.
Nene fouled out of the game with 1:08 left after fouling Meyers Leonard on a 3-pointer, forcing the Wizards to play small the rest of the way.
For the Blazers it was the shot in the arm they needed.
“I was still stuck on that he wasn’t going to be here for 6 to 8 weeks,” Lillard said of Aldridge. “Just trying to prepare myself mentally for the challenge, it’s going to be for our team. When I heard (Aldridge was back) it was like, man, it was new energy back into the team.”