Every year, a team “grows up” in the playoffs. It’s part of a painful learning curve every great team has to endure. This year, that team was the Portland Trail Blazers, and they did it in dramatic fashion with a miraculous, series-clinching buzzer-beater that catapulted them into the Conference Semifinals for the first time in 14 years and brought an entire city to its feet.
With 0.9 seconds remaining in Game 6 and facing the demoralizing prospect of one last winner-take-all slugfest against their Lone Star adversaries back in Houston, everyone on Earth knew the ball was going to the former Weber State wunderkind and reigning Rookie of the Year, who earlier in the season drilled back-to-back, game-winning shots and has proved over and over he’s as fearless and coldblooded as they come.
It was a cathartic moment for a long-suffering franchise whose fans are among the proudest and most fiercely loyal, not only around the NBA, but in all of professional sports. Nothing has ever come easy for the Trail Blazers. Time and again they’ve had to scratch and claw their way back from the brink of annihilation. So it seemed serendipitous Game 6 came so soon after the passing of a beloved local icon, Dr. Jack Ramsay — the former Trail Blazers’ coach who led the team to its one and only NBA Championship in 1977. It’s the specter of that lone title run that looms large over the city to this day.
All the years of disillusion and disappointment were an open wound yet to cauterize: Brandon Roy’s knees, Greg Oden’s knees, Sam Bowie’s knees, Rasheed Wallace’s technical fouls, Ruben Patterson’s various domestic and sexual assaults, Zach Randolph punching Patterson in the face during practice and shattering his eye-socket, Darius Miles calling Maurice Cheeks the dreaded n-word, Raymond Felton’s waistline, Nate McMillan’s inscrutable offensive schemes, Michael Jordan surgically removing the Blazers hearts during the 1992 Finals, the Blazers epic and inexplicable collapse in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Lakers after blowing a 15-point lead, the endless, perpetual rebuilding process, the entire Jail-Blazers epoch, Rasheed Wallace’s eventual departure and immediate championship run with the Pistons and how Portland’s players always seemed to get better and achieve more success after leaving town, that Zach Randolph’s most recent decent into self-destruction is somebody else’s problem now – all of it, flushed away with one auspicious and impossible shot and all the histrionics that go along with it.
But the other side of that curve is coming face-to-face with your own shortcomings and spending a long offseason trying to figure out what went wrong and how to correct it. Maybe it was the burden of expectation that came on the heels of that magical shot. Maybe it’s simply the Blazers are still a young and relatively inexperienced team.