The Trail Blazers came into training camp with the modest goal of making the playoffs after two years of regular-season futility. LaMarcus Aldridge explicitly said that his team would finish No. 7 in the Western Conference ("Mark my words," he said). That humble goal has been replaced by championship aspirations in the intervening months, and Thursday's game was a great example why as Aldridge made 15-of-29 FGs and 14-of-17 FTs on his way to a career-high 44 points, lifting the Blazers past the visiting Nuggets. He added 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocks as Portland moved half a game behind the Spurs and one game behind the Northwest-division-leading Thunder.
Aldridge shot 7-of-12 from within eight feet of the basket and Denver's defenders were simply helpless against him. He backed down Kenneth Faried and Anthony Randolph in the halfcourt, outran defenders in the open court, and all night long he took exactly the shots he wanted. In addition to gimmes in the paint and his usual assortment of flawless mid-range jumpers (only Dirk Nowitzki makes more shots from 10-14 feet, and Aldridge leads everyone from 15-19 feet), his ability to get to the FT line 17 times was impressive and encouraging. Although he took a season-high 19 free throws back in late November, Thursday marked the third time all season that he's reached double-digit attempts. With the exception of FG percentage (47.7 percent), steals (0.9) and blocks (1.0), Aldridge is shattering his previous career-highs across the board.
One wrinkle worth pointing out -- Aldridge's huge game was almost predictable considering no team gives up more points (26.4) and rebounds (12.7) to opposing PFs than the Nuggets. Denver's inability to contain opposing PFs may not mean much vs. Portland, since fantasy owners will play Aldridge regardless of matchups, but it could tip the balance in favor of lesser guys like Glen Davis, Jared Sullinger or Markieff Morris. Interestingly, the Blazers themselves give up the fewest points to opposing PFs, perhaps because they're expending all of their energy trying to contain LaMarcus defensively.
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Wesley Matthews pitched in 24 points with four assists, one steal and a pair of 3-pointers in the victory, and starting C Robin Lopez was competent as usual with 12 points, nine boards and two blocks. Even Nicolas Batum had six points, seven rebounds, 10 assists and two steals despite playing with a bulkier splint on his fractured finger. The injury hasn't cost Batum any games (zero DNPs all season) and it doesn't seem as though it will, but it certainly seems to be affecting his shot as he's making just 42.5 percent of his field goals in January.
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Trail Blazers rookie C.J. McCollum led the team's reserves with seven points in 11 minutes. He's cracked double-digit points just once since returning from injury and Portland's bench continues to be a fantasy wasteland. Terry Stotts has a tight, stable rotation which leans heavily on the starting five and has produced a mere 23.6 points per game from the second unit, led by Mo Williams' 9.4 per game on 40.4 percent shooting. Only the Warriors get less scoring from their bench, at 23.1 points per game, which is a huge reason they traded Toney Douglas to acquire Jordan Crawford.
The Nuggets are on a much different trajectory than the Blazers. Thursday's loss was their third straight and it bumped them 3.5 games behind the No. 8 seed Mavericks in the race for a playoff spot. There is no cavalry to ride in and save the season, either, now that Danilo Gallinari is done for the season following ACL reconstruction. JaVale McGee also remains out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his tibia, and he's still limited to working out on a zero-impact elliptical machine. He was incredibly bad five games prior to the injury this season, and I can't see any reason to have him stashed away in 12-team leagues.
Fantasy owners are also feeling the brunt of Denver's poor production. Ty Lawson had 13 points and 11 assists on Thursday and he's been the most valuable Nugget this season, but even he has been limited to season-long fifth-round value in nine-cat leagues. Wilson Chandler, who scored 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting in the loss, has also salvaged mid-round value and his rest-of-season outlook brightened with the news that Gallinari wouldn't return this season. Randy Foye and Kenneth Faried have each offered borderline value on the season (productive spurts followed by barren stretches), while J.J. Hickson has only been worth using for his 50.4 percent shooting and 9.1 rebounds per game -- on the whole he's hurting roto owners in standard leagues.
The most disappointing Nuggets player to this point (it's competitive) might be Faried, who is averaging 10.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.9 blocks in under 24 minutes per game. Denver is playing with the fifth-fastest pace in the NBA, which seems like it should play to Faried's strengths, but a few minor injuries have sapped him of his usual explosiveness and his defensive failings continue to limit his playing time -- for instance, he didn't leave the bench in the final 15 minutes of Thursday's game. Owners may want to keep the lessons of this game in mind going forward, and selectively deploy Faried in matchups which won't require him to play much (if any) defense.