By Seerat Sohi
LaMarcus Aldridge is a classic underdog. Once a sterling footnote with the Portland Trail Blazers under the famed Brandon Roy-Greg Oden pairing, he's the lone survivor of an ill-fated blueprint. In 2013, when the time was finally Aldridge's, he became the quintessential All-Star snub. When the Trail Blazers declined after a heady start this season, Aldridge fell in and out of the best power forward discussion, despite a defensive edge over his rivals and the fact that coach Terry Stotts built a top-five offense around him.
From Aldridge to Damian Lillard -- the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year five years after no elite college programs bothered to recruit him -- to the undrafted Wesley Matthews, the Trail Blazers are a ragtag ensemble of career underdogs. Just a week ago, they were written off yet again: They were the playoff team everybody wanted to face in the first round. For this group, it was par for the course.
Powered by LaMarcus Aldridge's back-to-back 40-plus-point performances, the Blazers are 2-0 against the No. 4 Houston Rockets, a squad with two famed superstars in Dwight Howard and James Harden, and heading back home to take care of business.
The prevailing wisdom of the day suggests that weaker teams should shoot a lot of threes and slow down the pace; anything to increase variance and give the algorithm less time to correct itself. The Blazers play at a high-octane speed, though, accruing about 97 possessions per game, but they did shoot 25.3 three-point attempts a night during the regular season.
What's really killing the Rockets is the versatility Aldridge's midrange game adds to a potent offense combined with the fact that playoff outliers don't always come down to earth in time for everything to work out the way it should on paper. Terrence Jones, prone to falling for pump fakes and picking up cheap fouls, is too inexperienced and small to guard Aldridge. Despite his size, lateral quickness and wily gambits, Omer Asik has fallen victim to a particularly unfortunate matchup. It's hard to "force" Aldridge into a high-release fadeaway jumper when that's the shot he wants. Howard hasn't been particularly effective in short spurts either, and situating him near Aldridge leaves no rim protection for the Rockets, unless they deploy an offensively decrepit unit featuring Howard and Asik.
What Aldridge is doing is the true hallmark of stardom: Forcing the opponent to twist and contort its game plan in accordance with Aldridge's skillset and then rendering their adjustments futile.
Hot as Aldridge is, though, there's always a bit of a schematic blind spot behind every crazy playoff run. In 82 games, Houston shot only 5.7 percent of their shots from the midrange zone. Think about how much space the midrange occupies in the halfcourt and reflect on that figure for a second. Houston pushes the idea of not caring about an area on the court to its upper limits. On the other end, they allowed the seventh-highest midrange attempts in the league. It's the shot that every modern defense -- especially the Rockets' -- is designed to offer. Portland follows Aldridge's suit: 20.5 percent of their points -- fourth in the league -- came from the midrange area this season. That figure has stayed the same against Houston.
The ol' trope goes like this: Underdogs resonate with the little guy inside of us that won't give up the fight. When David beats Goliath, we're introduced to more than just the redeeming good in our work-a-day selves, though. An improbable hero evokes feelings of chaos and uncertainty that immediately encapsulate fans. Mayhem doesn't necessarily resonate with us, but it fuels a tidal wave of interest. The possibility that a Harden lob to Howard will eventually set a counter-clockwise motion back on track keeps people on their toes, making them tune in for an unlikely journey while it's still a palpable force.
For a few days, we can imagine a world where the Wizards are in the Eastern Conference finals and Kevin Durant is making an MVP speech after a first-round knockout while the Grizzlies are vying for a spot at the Finals. That's the place Aldridge is taking us.
Every time Aldridge scored this week, his 6-foot-11 frame joined a legion of playoff firecrackers who, by the flick of the wrist, stood squarely against the moral fabric of how we chose to experience basketball at a given time, be it through analytics or the decrying the hot hand. There's no other way to explain how it feels to experience his utter dominance with the most inefficient shot in basketball.
The playoffs are a chess match more than they are a seven-game series. Lose the first one, you're probably looking at an uphill battle. Lose the first two, you're probably out. Lose the first three and, well, no one's ever made it back from that. Aldridge will eventually regress to the mean, but at 0-2, it might be too late for the Rockets.
In the NBA, it takes a wonky confluence of events for a successful upset. That the first steps transpired at the Toyota Center, the first place to render the middle of the court irrelevant for the modern NBA offense, is simply poetic justice for the old guard.
If the long two is the NBA's new market inefficiency -- teams are trending toward not shooting them, defenses aren't bothering to guard them -- the Trail Blazers are beating the NBA's original Moneyball squad at their own game.
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Seerat Sohi is an NBA writer for the ESPN True Hoop Network, living in Edmonton, Alberta. You can find her work at Hardwood Paroxysm and Clipperblog or by following her on Twitter at @DamianTrillard.