With two practices, a morning shootaround and pregame availability before Friday night’s 91-74 loss to the Trail Blazers at the United Center, the Bulls were asked so many questions about LaMarcus Aldridge that it was only natural that they were determined not to let Portland’s All-Star power forward have a big game.
Aldridge didn’t, scoring only five points on 2-for-10 shooting in his second game—a back-to-back, no less—after a seven-game layoff due to a back contusion. But while it was a far cry from his 25-point, 16-rebound performance in the Blazers’ win over Atlanta the previous evening, the 2006 Bulls’ draft pick—he was immediately traded for Tyrus Thomas—still managed to have a major impact on the contest.
“I was tight this morning and I was tight tonight, trying to get loose. But once I got going, I kind of got a little better. But tonight, they really didn’t let me get comfortable. They doubled from the baseline and rotated on the pick-and-rolls for the most part. So it was a little bit of me being sore and them making sure I didn’t get comfortable,” said Aldridge, who did have 13 rebounds. “I just want to bring what I can to the team and tonight, it was more defense and rebounding and trying to be active in the lane and making things tough in the lane defensively, because they wanted to take me out offensively. So naturally, you’ve got to do different things."
Aldridge, who has a history of good games in Chicago—the Blazers, as a team, have won their last six games against the Bulls—understood that he didn’t have it going from the outset Friday.
“I knew early,” he explained. “My first shot, I took it quick, but I saw Booz coming baseline and I remember the last home game, they doubled me the whole game. I’ve had some good game versus them in my past, so I felt like they wanted to take me out. So I knew early I wanted to be more active defensively.”
Bulls’ All-Star center Joakim Noah, a front-runner for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award, said it was quite the task to limit Aldridge.
“He’s a load down there,” he explained. “Great player and you can tell when he’s on the court, whether he scores or not, he changes their team. So he’s one of the best in the game and I don’t know what I was trying to take away, but he’s definitely a load out there.
Ironically, Noah was rumored to be a Blazers’ trade target when they reportedly explored trading Aldridge, who was supposedly once dissatisfied with Portland’s progress, last season.
While Aldridge wasn’t his usual self in terms of being a scorer, his mere presence opened things up for his teammates, who had lost nine out of 13 games before his return Thursday.
“His presence on the court changes things for everybody. Throwing the ball to him on the block creates double-teams. Everybody kind of focuses their attention on him,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “He does a lot more to help us win than just his field-goal percentage.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau added: “He didn’t make shots, but he did a lot of other things. He rebounded the ball well, protected the rim, he’s active and even though it doesn’t show—he had one assist—but he made a lot of good plays that led to good shots. He’s got a lot of experience and for us, we have to be careful for over-commitment on one particular player, where it allows other guys to get going. You want to concentrate on taking strengths away, so certain guys, we gave too much room to. Other guys, we should have played with a more appropriate cushion and that’s something we could have done better.”
Carlos Boozer chimed in: “I thought Jo did a great job on him, man. I thought he made him take tough shots—he’s obviously a terrific player, a great player—made him take tough shots and we just didn’t do a great job on the rest of the guys.
Blazers center Robin Lopez, who has helped transform Portland from one of league’s weakest defensive teams to at least a passable one, in part by freeing up Aldridge to play his natural position on a full-time basis, was one of the players who benefited from the All-Star’s presence. Lopez, the less-heralded brother of injured Nets All-Star center Brook Lopez, is a blue-collar, defensive-oriented type, who lived up to his reputation with 13 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots against the Bulls.
“They’re a good combo. They play well together. You’ve got to respect LaMarcus’ shot. It opens up everything for his dives to the basket, his rolls to the basket, his offensive rebounding,” Noah said of Lopez. “He’s a big boy, good touch, good finisher. He’s a good tip-in man, good player.”
Teammate Mike Dunleavy Jr. agreed: “He’s had a tremendous impact on their team this year. He’s probably the biggest difference why they’re a contender as compared to not even making the playoffs last year. His presence down there on both ends of the court is huge, he does all the dirty work and they’re fortunate to have him.”