WESLEY MATTHEWS is dejected. He was, after all, the closest one to the breakdown when it happened.
The Portland Trail Blazers were 1.9 seconds away from an improbable comeback against the Dallas Mavericks on December 7, moments removed from a pair of implausible three-pointers and seemingly minutes away from overtime.
But then, a timeout on the floor. An inbounds pass to Mavs star Monta Ellis. An all-too-easily earned open look, and a game-winning jump-shot that deflated the room like a screeching record.
The Trail Blazers' weeklong coming-out party was over—suddenly ending on the sourest of notes.
Matthews sits on a padded chair in front of his locker, shoes and shorts cast aside, 2XL jersey hanging below his waist. He stares blankly as a pack of reporters and cameramen poke, prod, and then lower their microphones and move as a herd to the next interview.
I step in and ask Matthews where he might find solace. After all, the stunning loss was just the Blazers' second in 17 games. They lead the Western Conference and are the talk of the National Basketball Association, topping unofficial power rankings, dispatching rivals and notions of illegitimacy. The New York Times has even hailed them as "a lesson in chemistry."
But Matthews deflects the opportunity to accentuate the positive.
"We wanted to be greedy," he says. "We wanted to get all of 'em."
Directly across the locker room, LaMarcus Aldridge wears a shiner below his left eye. He is more even-keeled, but isn't ready to take the big-picture view, either.
"We're definitely not about moral victories—trying to win some and lose some," he says. "We want to win every game."
Twenty-four hours prior, that idea felt more possible than it had in a while.
Aldridge stood in the same spot, the locker room abuzz after a record-setting performance against the lowly Utah Jazz—a 130-98 romp in which Portland hit an all-time-franchise-best 17 three-point shots. The win marked a third straight in a Blazers' homestand highlighted by triumphs against the team with the best record in the NBA (Indiana) and a well-established Western Conference foil (Oklahoma City).
Aldridge—an All-Star forward rumored to be seeking a trade from Portland over the summer—heard chants of "M-V-P" from the Moda Center crowd every time he stepped to the free-throw line. His performance on December 6 pushed him to career highs for points and rebounds per game. At 28, he's playing with poise and leading with certainty. Aldridge tells a reporter (in town a night early from Dallas) that his confidence level is "through the roof," and a healthy summer of training has him feeling "really strong and more stable." His full offensive arsenal is available, Aldridge says, and he's making good decisions.
The reporter switches off his recorder and relays a message. "You've got another MVP vote—from the Big German," he says, seemingly speaking of Maverick 11-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki. "He's giving it to you."
That's high praise coming from a future Hall of Famer whose frame (about seven-feet tall) and game (deadly jump-shooter) mirrors Aldridge's. I ask him how it feels to hear that, along with the reams of praise he's beginning to garner as Portland makes a name for itself a quarter of the way through the season.
"It's very surreal," he says. "I've definitely worked hard, so it's nice to know when that pays off."
Rip City's rise has been ushered in by a confluence of players converging into their full potential (yeoman guard Matthews, scrappy defender/sharpshooter Nicolas Batum, and budding superstar/reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard), along with the offseason addition of experienced role-players (Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, and Dorell Wright) to a now-legitimate rotation.
"This team is special," Aldridge says, noting he's having the most fun of any of his eight NBA seasons. "It's defense first, and everybody's buying in with that unselfish attitude—everybody's trying to go out and guard every guy."
The next night against Dallas, however, it's clear that defense slips out of its top spot. Playing for the second straight night against a team that hadn't suited up in three days, the Blazers are visibly out of rhythm, forced to claw back time and again as Nowitzki peppers Portland with late-game jumpers.
With a minute left and Portland trailing by six, Batum and Lillard hit back-to-back threes. Lillard's tying shot lifts the crowd into hysterics and sends him spinning near center court, punching the air like a boxer delivering a body blow. Portland would lose the game, but hope? Not this team.
"If we keep up this fun play," Aldridge says, "anything's possible."