We Reminisce: Portland Nearly Making History Against Dallas In The 2003 NBA Playoffs

I never called Nick Van Exel shy. Too many jumpers early in shot clocks proved he had no conscience. I never called him timid either. Too many arguments with Del Harris proved that. I also never called him faint-hearted. He had enough street cred to get name-dropped in a song by Jigga. I figured he had a little Cypress Hill in him when he shoved Ron Garretson into the scorer’s table. And busting out “the monkey” midgame, against the Jazz no less (I doubt anyone on that team had even heard of “the monkey”), should’ve been all the evidence needed to sum it up: Van Exel had himself some big ol’ Sam Cassell-sized balls.

Even though Van Exel had the audacity once to go in on my boy J-Will, crying racism, I still had to show him love.

But even he couldn’t face the music. Game 7 at home… in the first round… against the let-out-of-their-cage Blazers… once up 3-0, now facing elimination. That morning, back in 2003 on the first Sunday in May, Van Exel had to hide underneath the covers, safely behind the protective doors of his home.

“I went home and pulled down the blinds,” Van Exel once said. “I didn’t want to be seen. It’s an embarrassing feeling to be up 3-0 and then lose three in a row. But this morning, we couldn’t wait.”

Van Exel wasn’t alone. The Mavs were on the edge of completing the greatest collapse in NBA history. Their heels were off the edge, their toes tightened, their arms were reaching out for something to grab. But just as they started to slip backwards off the cliff, the fourth quarter came, the Blazers didn’t score over the final three minutes, and Van Exel and his boy from Germany did the rest, dropping 57 points.

There have been precious few times in NBA history where a team created any type of drama out of a 3-0 hole. But the Portland Trail Blazers of the 2003 Playoffs nearly pulled off the unthinkable against the 60-win Dallas Mavericks. That Blazer team, led in the playoffs by Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells, went into the final 12 minutes of Game 7 with a two-point lead and a finger on history. After a trey from Wallace, they even had a lead with under five minutes to go. History, oh so close.

For basketball fans, that Blazer team was a full-course meal. Wallace and Wells were talented, mercurial stars who could pout their way to six points and an ejection, or light someone up for 45 (as Wells did in Game 2 of this series). Scottie Pippen gave them that smug “I’ve done it before” attitude. Arvydas Sabonis made them hipster cool. Ruben Patterson and Jeff McInnis made them cooler. Even a young Zach Randolph and Qyntel Woods were coming off the bench taking notes. The most normal guy on that team was Derek Anderson. And all of it coached by Mo Cheeks, which is one of the most hilarious combinations in NBA history. He’s such a nice guy that in Portland’s home playoff opener, he memorably helped a 13-year-old finish the national anthem after she forgot the words.

With all that talent and depth – the Blazers actually used five different starting lineups in seven playoff games, which HAS to be some type of record – Portland was anything but predictable.

Their season should’ve been toast after Game 3, when Dirk looked like he could’ve gone for 60, and then strutted out of the Rose Garden like a conquering war hero, soaking in the boos Portland’s faithful was splashing down on their team. Their season should’ve been over again in Game 4, when the Mavs took another halftime lead, just 24 minutes away from a rematch in the semis with Sacramento, the team that had cut them up and stored their body parts in a damp basement somewhere the spring before.

And yet despite all that, we should’ve seen it coming.

“All we had to do was win Game 4,” one Blazer once told David Aldridge in the hallway after Portland had tied the series back up, “because I knew those (bleeps) didn’t guard anybody.”

We should’ve seen it coming because what made those Blazer teams interesting, what made them oddly loveable, was what made them believe they could still breath: an arrogant conviction by everyone that they could turn it all around by themselves; that tunnel vision that could kill them one night, and make them wholly unpredictable the next; that animal instinct that doesn’t know pity, only “seek prey, destroy prey.” Basically, the old Jail Blazer teams were a lot more fun than the more recent Frail Blazer teams because they were crazy. If anyone was going to come back from 3-0, it should’ve been the team that had one teammate (Z-Bo) punch another (the Kobe Stopper), and had everyone in the organization freaking out about what would happen when that one teammate’s (the Kobe Stopper) probation ended.

So starting from the third quarter in Game 4, which Portland won by 23 points, the Blazers pounded the Mavs into submission, Deebo-ing their way to layup, dunk, offensive rebound, layup, dunk… destruction. In Games 5 and 6, the Blazers won the boards by a combined 29 caroms. As David Aldridge quipped back in the day, the only reason it wasn’t a larger margin was because “The Blazers got tired of jumping.” In the first half of Game 6, they were up on rebounds 29-9. Dirk, Raef LaFrentz and Shawn Bradley had combined for one.

Playing right into the “soft as Eddy Curry‘s stomach” label he had at the time, Dirk ended that night with four points and zero rebounds. Meanwhile, Sabonis came off the bench for Portland, played only a dozen minutes, and yet he still had eight times Dirk’s rebounding total.

In Game 1-3, it was the shooting and versatility of Dallas’ Big Three – Dirk, Michael Finley and Steve Nash – that dominated. In Game 3-6, it was the opposite: the barbaric aggressiveness of Portland’s physicality. Then, Game 7 was played to a standstill for 43 minutes.

Perhaps it was injuries that did Portland in. Derek Anderson had arthroscopic knee surgery in the playoffs. Pippen dealt with knee problems that limited him more than any disagreement with management could’ve, and he had been their rock all year, playing point guard more and more as the season went on. Sabonis missed Game 4 because of his back. Even Dale Davis missed Game 7 after sustaining an injury two nights before.

But those are only excuses. They were did in because when it was absolutely necessary, Dirk was a beast, going for a Game 7 line (31/11/3 blocks in 46 minutes) that was filled with big-moment money plays.

This was the same season that Dallas famously blew a 30-point lead in a regular season game to the Lakers (who had a prime Kobe, Shaq, and enough brittle on the rest of the roster to dirty up the whole arena). Instead, the Mavs played a near-perfect fourth quarter when they needed it, and robbed us of a little more time with the one team that could make DMX look normal. Damn you, Nick Van Exel.

What do you remember about this series? These teams?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.