A year ago, the Portland Trailblazers were humiliated in the first round of the NBA playoffs in a crushing defeat. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo played harder, defended like they were about to be sent to a debtors prison, made shots, had that arrogant confident air necessary to win in the playoffs. They slowed everything down, trapped Damian Lillard consistently, bodied up C.J. McCollum, made Jusuf Nurkic look stupid trying to do something against the gifted Davis, added a bunch of threes by Nikola Mirotic, and just plain whipped Rip City. Terry Stotts was outcoached and the Blazers bench wasn’t ready for the lights. In the aftermath, everyone was yelling about trading either Lillard or McCollum to get more help.
Shortly thereafter, feelings bruised, C.J. McCollum went on the talk show circuit and was adamant. No, he defended. We do not need to be broken up. This is not a marriage in distress. We just need to make slight changes. Add, and not subtract.
Although McCollum was placated, secretly no one was buying Rip City. They are a talented backcourt but not the best in the conference. They have never had a small forward to speak of and their front court is miserable at shot making. Jusuf Nurkic is…well Denver chose Nikola Jokic over him for obvious reasons. And Terry Stotts is a nice defensive minded coach who never panics and his players are devoted to him but is he that great?
Those were the whispers. The Blazers didn’t really do anything in the offseason. They stayed pat with their Lillard-McCollum experiment. And then. They were 6th in scoring and 9th in 3-point buckets. They take a lot of two point shots and make them. They ranked top-3 in offensive rebounding and total rebounding so they keep possessions alive. They still are the Blazers and ball movement for a bucket isn’t their thing. They aren’t the Warriors 2.0. And their defense is average. But when you can score, you can demoralize teams.
After the All-Star break, they were 19-6 which was a clue that something special was on the horizon, even as they battled with injuries. Dame Lillard is their most important player. As long as he can stay healthy, the Blazers can adjust around him while waiting for bodies to heal.
But the regular season can be overanalyzed. The Blazers lost three season series in 2018-19. Miami. OKC. Denver. OKC was particularly brutal, losing all 4 games to the Westbrook-ites. The Blazers were able to get one game off the Nuggets in the regular season.
But where the playoffs are different than the regular season is the intensity and focus and the ability to overcome adversity is exponentially greater and with it more stress. The Blazers ability to offensive rebound is why they are in the conference finals. In the 12 playoff games this year, they have double digit offensive rebounds in 8 of them, and 5 in a row. More possessions, more chances for Dame and McCollum. Or as Pat Riley liked to say, no rebounds, no rings.
Pat Riley also liked to say, ignore the peripheral opponent. The distractions that keep players from reaching their potential because they are concerned about everything that doesn’t matter. It’s harder for this generation, locked in as they are to social media. But 100% focus separates the winners from didn’t win a game 7 at home because couldn’t make free throws. As Jeff Van Gundy noted in Sunday’s Game 7, it is the small things that lead to defeat, the details that get bungled, overlooked or ignored.
In yesterday’s game, the Blazers shot 15% from three. But they only missed 4 free throws and turned the ball over a stingy 4 times. Their 7 blocks were the most since game 4 in OKC when they had 8 blocks. They won that game too. Their 16 assists were the second worst of the playoffs but their 55 rebounds were the most in a regulation game. They managed the ups and downs, alpha and omega that the playoffs bring. And they had an unguardable player.
That is the only way to manage the playoffs as a contender. Do you have a guy who can get buckets? Drop 40? Demoralize the other team? So versatile the defense is always a step behind? Wants the ball when it’s tight and everything is on the line?
The NBA is about overexaggerating the last thing we saw. The last time we saw the Blazers in the playoffs they had gotten the dog beaten out of them. They were dispirited but reflective. It didn’t get them down. They dusted themselves off, made some improvements at the trade line with Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter, and did the Blazer Rip City thing. Their appearance in the WCF is because Dame destroyed OKC and McCollum ruined the Nuggets party. Their bench pushed them over the finish line. If nothing else, the Blazers are tough.
So the Warriors don’t make them tremble. It’s the opposite. It’s back to Oakland for Dame. A chance to close out Oracle. A fairy tale ending to be sure, in a playoff season of the incredible. No one saw this coming. Except for the Blazers. They saw it all along.