H&J: What type of team are the Blazers?
"This summer was about me building up my mental toughness down the stretch and a little game like that by myself helped me.”
"I’ve made big shots before, but I’ve never been dominant down the stretch. People are seeing me differently now because I’m initiating my moves instead of off the pass.”
TUALATIN -- With an upgraded supporting cast, teams are finding it extremely difficult to double-team Portland Trail Blazers two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. And because of it, the forward has had the opportunities and succeeded in putting games away as of late.
Aldridge has often been ridiculed for not being clutch in the closing minutes of intense, tight games. Fair or not, he admits the criticism directed at that part of his game is what he constantly struggled with since becoming the face of the franchise.
“It did bother me because I felt like I always wanted the ball and I felt like I always had the confidence level to make plays down the stretch,” Aldridge told CSNNW.com. “So I felt like people were just misreading me. But this summer, everything I did was about getting ready to be better down the stretch.”
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Aldridge says the last few years he became obsessed with looking up the stats of other All-Star players to see how they fared when it was time to get their team a bucket when they needed one. He never doubted his skills as a closer, but he said he knew he could do more to become better at it.
So, in a modified five-spot version, Aldridge said after his summer workouts, he would play a playground game called “Beat the Pros” all by himself. He would pick five spots on the court and the goal was to make five baskets at each spot before moving to the next location.
You’re only allowed to miss up to four shots during the entire game in order to continue. If you were to miss five, you would have to start the game all over again. In simpler form, make a total of 25 shots in 29 attempts or less.
“It puts pressure on each shot,” he said. “It mentally makes me lock in during the fourth quarter because each shot is pressure. This summer was about me building up my mental toughness down the stretch and a little game like that by myself helped me.”
Early on in this season, we have witnessed the fruits of his labor.
The second game of the season against the Denver Nuggets, a place the Trail Blazers haven’t won in five years, Portland was starting to unravel after having a 21-point lead early in the fourth. It was 3:21 left in the game with their lead trimmed to 11. Portland called a timeout in which Aldridge demanded the ball down the stretch.
In roughly a two-minute span, Aldridge erupted for eight points on a series of turnaround jumpers that sucked the life out of the Nuggets and their crowd. Those points were Portland’s final points of the game. Trail Blazers won 113-98.
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Four games later saw Portland matched up with the Sacramento Kings at the Moda Center. Holding down an 11-point lead entering the fourth, the Kings cut the deficit to six with 4:33 remaining in the contest. Aldridge again exploded for eight points in a little over two minutes to put the game out of reach of the Kings. Portland wins 104-91.
Closer? Case closed.
“Those two games are just showing my growth down the stretch,” Aldridge said. “I feel like I have an idea in my head of what I want to do now. I kind of feel the game out more as far as what I want to go to.”
In reality, Aldridge isn’t new to the closing party. He’s just in a different position to do so.
“I’ve made big shots before, but I’ve never been dominant down the stretch,” he explained. I think I made big shots but it’s noticeable now. A lot of my big shots in the past came in Andre Miller pick-and-rolls, Brandon Roy pick-and-rolls. So I was making jump-shots that we needed to win the game but I was catching and shooting. Where as these plays, I’m creating my own shot and I’m scoring. People are seeing me differently because I’m initiating my moves instead of off the pass.”
When Nicolas Batum was asked who the closer of this team was, he didn’t hesitate to say L.A., with a look on his face as if I asked a stupid question.
To think, a playground game helped an NBA All-Star improve his craft for the most crucial time of a NBA basketball game. It’s also refreshing to know criticism still fuels an All-Star who has accomplished more than what most NBA players will ever achieve.
But you have to be willing to take the good and the bad. You’re not going to make every shot down the stretch. Praise occurs when the ball goes in and condemnation comes when the ball clanks off the rim. It’s a situation only a few players are built for in this league and Aldridge is making his case that he’s one of them.
“It’s a big burden. It’s definitely not easy,” he said. “If you make it, everybody loves you, if you miss it, people are going to criticize the fact that I took a fadeaway jump-shot as I’ve been doing my whole career. It’s not about doing this for the glory of it, I’m doing it because I feel like this team needs that and I feel like I can do it. Everybody believes in me and I’ve worked hard this summer to be better at it so hopefully I’ll do better this year.”