CHICAGO — The difference between having and missing LaMarcus Aldridge has been night and day for the Portland Trail Blazers.
The All-Star power forward missed seven games with a back injury in a March 12 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, and his team went 3-4 during that stretch. But they are 2-0 since he returned Thursday and enter Sunday's home game against the Memphis Grizzlies (9 p.m. ET, NBATV) with renewed momentum.
Aldridge had 25 points and 16 rebounds in his first game back Thursday, a 100-85 road win against the Atlanta Hawks. But while he was quieter during Friday's 91-74 victory at the Chicago Bulls, his presence alone carried Portland.
The 6-11, lanky forward scored a season-low five points on 2-for-10 shooting but pulled down 13 rebounds and came up with four steals. That allowed guards Damian Lillard and Mo Williams provide the majority of the offense.
"Whether he scores or not, you can tell when he's on the court," Bulls center Joakim Noah said after the game. "He changes their team."
The Blazers, once the top team in the Western Conference and making noise as a potential surprise title contender, have struggled down the stretch. Aldridge was discussed early in the season as a potential MVP candidate. Leading up to Friday's game, however, the Blazers had lost nine of their last 14 games, barely clinging to the fifth seed in a crowded Western Conference playoff race.
With a tough final stretch of regular-season games approaching, Portland needs its most experienced starter more than ever.
"Basically, more than his numbers, his presence on the court makes everybody else better," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "When he was playing at an MVP-type level in November and December, we were considered one of the best teams in the league. So having him play at that level just makes everyone else that much better."
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau added, "He scores in so many different ways. He runs the floor, he can post up, run the pick-and-roll, catch and shoot, he's comfortable away from the basket, can face the basket. He's got great vision and size. His shot is difficult to get to because of the high release. And then his ability to make a play to the weak side of the floor. He can hurt you in a lot of different ways."
Once asked to shoulder a monster offensive load on shallow teams, Aldridge has grown more comfortable letting his teammates do the work on that end. He understands that his skill set and reputation make him a focus for opposing defenses, and the Blazers have a variety of weapons to counter it.
"I knew early that I was going to have to be more active defensively," Aldridge said after the Bulls game. "I just want to bring what I can to the team. Tonight it was more defense and rebounding and trying to be active in the lane and making things tough defensively. They made it hard for me offensively so I had to do other things."
In Aldridge's absence, the Blazers opted for a smaller starting lineup with veteran swingman Dorell Wright starting at power forward and second-year big man Thomas Robinson playing increased minutes off the bench. Robinson played some of the best basketball of his career in Aldridge's absence, but Aldridge left a major hole.
His chemistry with center Robin Lopez has been a boon to the Blazers since they traded for the veteran center last summer.
"They're a good combo," Noah said. "You have to respect LaMarcus' shot, and that opens up the lane for (Lopez's) dives to the basket."
The Blazers have eight games remaining in the regular season, including four against fellow playoff contenders: the Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors. These games will determine their first-round playoff matchup and their chances at advancing to the second round for the first time since 2000.
With Aldridge back, reaching that goal should be a lot easier.