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.
To be certain, the Blazers have a lot of positive takeaways from this — in many ways — unlikely run. They cut a large swathe through the regular season during which they boasted the league’s deadliest offense and, at times, arguably the best starting five in the NBA. Much of this credit belongs to Head Coach Terry Stotts for engineering a high-octane scoring machine, which finished among the top five in points per game (106.7).
Of their 54 regular season wins, 47 came when they scored 100 points or more, but a seemingly endless capacity for offense was always undermined by a defense who ran the gamut from bad to mediocre.
Nevertheless, they exceeded expectations at every turn, as their benevolent leader, LaMarcus Aldridge, evolved from perennial All-Star to fringe-MVP candidate, and their intrepid point guard Damian Lillard continued his stratospheric ascent.
It’s hard to believe it was just a year ago there were whispers of a trade request supposedly made on behalf of Aldridge and his camp. So distant now is the memory of that dreadful, late-season collapse culminating in a 13-game losing streak (the longest in team history) and a second straight playoff absence.
But the daunting prospect of yet another rebuilding season quickly dissipated thanks to some savvy moves by Blazers’ GM Neil Olshey, who was able to shed some of the dead weight – they had literally the worst bench in the league last year – and finagle a few assets into a legitimate frontcourt presence with Robin Lopez and backup fireplug Mo Williams.
Still, they set the bar low from the very beginning. The fans, the players, and team brass all would have been content to finish above .500 this season and maybe make a realistic run at the postseason, but a blistering start that vaulted them atop the Western Conference standings for a spell got everyone thinking bigger picture.
The basketball intelligentsia, of course, understood that — despite their early success — championship aspirations were wildly premature, especially considering the Blazers had proven, at best, a middling defensive team that merrily hoists upwards of 25 three-pointers per game. Unsurprisingly, once they found themselves in those midseason doldrums, once the lava cooled and hardened, everyone was tempering their expectations a bit. “Let’s just make the playoffs and take it from there.” But the inescapable lull lasted longer than anyone would have liked, thanks to an injury that sidelined Aldridge at the worst possible time, and all of the sudden, the Blazers were once again facing the very real possibility they might not qualify for the playoffs after all.
But this was a very different team from the one who imploded so spectacularly at the end of last season, and with a healthy Aldridge in tow, the Blazers managed to secure the fifth seed in the Western Conference and a first-round matchup against a Houston Rockets team who bounced them from the postseason just a few short years ago.
From the beginning, it was a Texas-style shootout between two lethal offensive teams (the Rockets finished the season with the second-highest scoring offense in the league at 107.7 PPG, while the Blazers finished fourth), both of whom gleefully eschewed their defensive duties at the other end (the Blazers, for instance, allowed opponents 110.9 points per 100 possessions during the playoffs).
What followed was a string of eye-popping, MVP-caliber performances from Aldridge in Games 1 and 2 – 46 points and 18 rebounds and a 43 point, eight rebound effort, respectively. Despite a few stumbles, the Blazers were able to dispatch the wayward Rockets in Game 6 on Lillard’s now-legendary shot.
And what did they earn for their troubles? A matchup against a San Antonio Spurs team that was just finding its footing after a grueling seven-game series against the Mavs.
From the start, the Spurs figured out a way to dilute the Blazers’ highly potent offense, finishing off the series with a stingy 93.9 defensive rating through five games, first by running the Blazers’ perimeter shooters off the three-point line while simultaneously badgering Aldridge into a shooting slump with a defensive tandem comprised of Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw.
Through the first two games, Aldridge was just 8-for-25 against Splitter, including a 2-for-13 brick-fest in Game 2. Things didn’t get any easier in Game 3, as Splitter had his number once again, giving up just six total points to Aldridge in half-court sets. At least some credit is due to Splitter for his monk-like discipline on defense – shoving Aldridge off the block early and failing to bite on fakes – but a solid chunk of those misfires were shots Aldridge typically makes.
When all was said and done, it was the Spurs who were the offensive juggernaut, finishing the series with an average of 112.3 points per 100 possessions and a net rating of plus-18.3. Through the first three games, the Blazers had no answer for Tony Parker, who averaged 29.3 points and 8.5 assists on 52.4 percent shooting and ruthlessly carved up the Blazers’ porous defense like Hannibal Lector prepping for a dinner party.
With San Antonio, as always, it’s all about spacing and execution, which was practically flawless this series despite the Game 4 aberration. The Spurs’ furious attacks exposed some glaring holes in Stotts’s schemes. At times, the Blazers seemed baffled by basic pick-n-roll action as Lillard and everyone else were collectively responsible for all sorts of defensive miscues. That problem was exacerbated when Robin Lopez couldn’t seem to decide at what time — or how hard — he should hedge on the ball-handler in those situations when, like clockwork, the Blazers’ backcourt failed to fight through a screen and left him hanging out to dry. That type of timing and court awareness is ultimately what separates him from an elite defender like Marc Gasol, who has an implicit understanding of how far out to hedge on the ball-handler coming around the screen to keep him honest while allowing his backcourt mates time to recover. Then again, Tony Allen and Mike Conley are elite defenders in comparison to Lillard — for now at least (Ed. Note: never underestimate Dame).
Despite disastrous results, Stotts elected not to double-team Parker or switch defenders off the screen through three straight blowout losses. According to SportVU data, Parker drove to the basket 18 times in Game 3, his second-highest total of the entire season. For all of his vaunted defensive tenacity, Wesley Matthews got abused by Parker for 14 points, while Nic Batum held him to just three total points. Batum was clearly able to use his substantial length to stymie Parker’s aggressiveness, yet Stotts was unwilling to commit to this adjustment until the series was on the line in Game 4.
To be clear, nobody in their right mind actually expected the Blazers to win a championship this year. That’s just not how it works in the NBA. Very few, if any, teams in history have gone from missing the playoffs and finishing below .500 the previous year to winning an NBA championship. It seemed too obvious to even look this up. Championship teams have to experience some growing pains along the way, and the Blazers’ organization as a whole should be encouraged by the tremendous strides they’ve made this season.
That said, they’ll need to address some lingering issues in the offseason, issues they were able to hide during the regular season, which were magnified tenfold during the playoffs. Depth is still a major concern for this squad, especially when you stack it up against a championship-caliber team like San Antonio.
In Game 3, the Spurs’ reserves outscored the Blazers’ bench 40-6, and Stotts is so (justifiably) reluctant to go anymore than seven players deep in the rotation that it causes him to run his starters ragged. Lillard and Aldridge, for instance, both logged nearly 40 MPG this series. Compare that with Tim Duncan and Parker, who each averaged little more than 30 MPG. Careful management of your stars’ playing time is central to an extended postseason run. Aside from Will Barton’s gutsy Game 4 eruption and a few promising flourishes from Thomas Robinson, the rest of the Blazers’ bench was missing in action.
In some respects, it’s an unfair comparison; only Gregg Popovich could squeeze the type of production he gets out of former castaways like Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, and Patty Mills (an ex-Blazer who brought minimal value to the team). By halftime of Game 4, despite trailing by two, every active San Antonio player (starters and reserves) had scored at least once, except for Danny Green, and he promptly scored the first bucket for the Spurs at the start of the third quarter. It’s almost as if it was designed that way (hint: it was). Everything Coach Pop does is calculated, including deliberately conceding Game 4 by yanking his stars midway through the third quarter and never putting them back in.
In any case, you won’t advance very far in the playoffs going only seven players deep (unless, of course, you’re up against Houston and James Harden’s hospitable matador defense), so the Blazers’ front office has to figure out a way to retrofit their rotation if they want to make another serious run next season. They desperately need another reliable big man who can patrol the paint and give them scoring off the bench, and sooner or later they’ll have to realize Joel Freeland and (especially) Meyers Leonard are not a viable long-term solution. They could also use another backup shooting guard, preferably a defensive-minded one (an oxymoron, I know) so Mo Williams no longer has to assume both roles. More than anything, Stotts needs to steal a page from Popovich’s playbook and figure out how to coax the maximum potential out of every player on his roster while preaching execution on both ends of the floor.
Whatever his shortcomings, in Stotts they have an offensive innovator and all-around contemporary thinker with championship pedigree who has all the tools necessary to lead this team to the next level if he gets the support he needs from management.
As long as the core group remains intact, the Blazers can continue to build around them, but Paul Allen can’t be afraid to dig a little deeper into those cavernous pockets if he truly wants to assemble a contender. The Blazers have plenty of cap space to work with in the coming year, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be aggressively courting a few more legitimate complimentary players.
For now, Blazers fans will have to spend the summer wondering what might have been, but they can breathe a sigh of relief knowing their championship window has been flung wide open once again.
How do the Blazers fare next season?
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