Will 2013-14 Trail Blazers Be a One-Shot Wonder or an All-Time Portland Great?

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Will 2013-14 Trail Blazers Be a One-Shot Wonder or an All-Time Portland Great?
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It's no matter of hyperbole to suggest—if not scream from the rooftops—that Damian Lillard's shot to beat the Houston Rockets in Game 6 and end the Portland Trail Blazers' first-round series was the greatest in franchise history.

But don't take my word for it. Just ask Jason Quick, who's been covering the Blazers beat in some capacity for The Oregonian since 2000:

Yes, Maurice Lucas hit a game-winner to beat Denver in Game 1 of the 1977 Western Conference semifinals, a shot that continued the Blazers’ unexpected journey to the NBA title.

But it didn’t end a series.

And yes, Brandon Roy hit a 30-footer with 0.8 seconds left in overtime, off an inbounds pass, to beat Houston in 2008, in a shot that coach Nate McMillan said “came from the heavens.”

But that was in November. In the regular season.

In fact, this was the first buzzer-beating shot to win a playoff series since John Stockton beat Houston in 1997.

That one shot already assures these 2013-14 Blazers of prominent placement among this franchise's most memorable outfits.

Of which, frankly, there aren't that many. Portland's NBA franchise is middle-aged compared to the league's 29 other constituents, with this year being the Blazers' 45th. As much success as they've enjoyed in those four-and-a-half decades (i.e. 31 playoff appearances in their last 39 seasons, 21 straight between 1983 and 2003), the list of squads worth celebrating is relatively short.

There was the Mike Dunleavy-guided edition that appeared in back-to-back Western Conference Finals in 1999 and 2000. Both times, the Blazers—then organized around the likes of Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire and Arvydas Sabonis (to name a few)—were ousted by the eventual champions. Few in Rip City will ever forget the indignity of the Blazers' fourth-quarter collapse against the Los Angeles Lakers after the turn of the millennium.

And yet, that team can't be completely dismissed. After all, those Blazers won 59 regular-season games and were the last ones to advance in the postseason until this year's Lillard-led upstarts squeaked past the Rockets in six.

That being said, those Portland teams that bridged the Y2K gap pale in comparison to the ones that established themselves among the league's elite just as the "Showtime" Lakers were nearing the end of their illustrious run. These Blazers, coached by Rick Adelman, appeared in three straight Western Conference Finals, advanced to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992 and set a franchise record for regular-season wins (63) in 1990-91 that still stands to this day.

Despite their successes, Adelman's Blazers are most widely remembered for the history that was made against them.

Which team did the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons dominate for their second consecutive title? The Blazers.

Which team was the last to be beaten in a postseason series by Magic Johnson? The Blazers.

Which team was victimized by Michael Jordan's infamous shoulder shrug? Yup, the Blazers.

The sharp hindsight afforded by history would suggest that Portland's first pro sports franchise could (and maybe should) have had many more moments worth celebrating if not for a few unfortunate missteps along the way. The Blazers of the early 2000s were undone by poor chemistry and unsavory personalities, to the point that a moniker like "Jail Blazers" fit a bit too snuggly.

Portland might've stocked its display case with Larry O'Brien Trophies from the late 1980s and into the 1990s had then-GM Stu Inman passed on Sam Bowie for a North Carolina kid by the name of Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft.

Heck, even the vaunted team that won the Blazers' lone title in 1977 can be seen, in some respects, to have underperformed. That group, coached by the late Dr. Jack Ramsey, was young, talented and tight-knit. Those Blazers were led by a supremely skilled post player, in Hall of Famer Bill Walton; a tough, productive power forward in the midst of his prime, in Maurice Lucas; and a studly, second-year point guard, in former Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins.

Portland stormed through the West, sweeping Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Lakers in the conference finals, before ousting Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers from the finals in six games.

That run looked to be just the beginning of a dynasty in Rip City. The Blazers had gone all the way in the franchise's postseason debut. The roster featured just one player (Herm Gilliam) who was over the age of 30 at the time. They'd dominated both ends of the floor so thoroughly in the playoffs, after winning 49 games during the regular season, that even the sky seemed too conservative an estimate for their collective ceiling.

That is, until injuries, particularly those to Walton's foot and ankle, combined with the dreaded "Disease of More" to sink the Blazers' ship shortly after it had set sail in pursuit of championships.

So far, this year's Blazers can be described in much the same manner. They, too, are new to this whole "playoffs" thing—as a unit, anyway. Their strength lie up front, particularly in the personage of LaMarcus Aldridge. The All-Star forward, in the midst of his breakout campaign at the age of 28, became just the third player in NBA history to score 40 or more points in consecutive road games to start a playoff series when he piled up 46 and 43 in Games 1 and 2, respectively, in Houston.

Lillard, like Hollins before him, is taking the Association by storm in just his second season as a pro. His focus and accuracy on that series winner in Game 6 was sharpened by a season full of buzzer-beaters and dramatic moments in crunch time, like this one.

And this one.

And this one too.

Just as the entire team's mentality was sharpened by injury-related tragedy, the likes of which was all too befitting of this franchise's past. These Blazers were fashioned on a foundation of the "woulda's," "coulda's" and "shoulda's" of knee troubles that cut short Brandon Roy's superstar potential, shortly after three straight All-Star selections, and undermined Greg Oden's before he ever so much as set foot in an NBA game.

And before Kevin Durant, the No. 2 pick in 2007 after Oden, once again rendered Portland a not-so-forgettable footnote in another team's tale of triumph.

These Blazers, talented as they were and are, came essentially out of nowhere to dominate the NBA's news cycle early on in 2013-14. They sped out to a shockingly hot start (22-4, then 31-9) behind an offense that thrived on ball movement and perimeter shooting. But the Blazers dipped back under the radar during the season's middle months as concerns about their reliance on the long ball and a suspect defense came home to roost.

A stretch of nine wins in its last 10 regular-season games did little to put Portland back in the spotlight, even less so when a first-round matchup against the Rockets, who'd congealed into something resembling a championship contender, began to materialize.

That series now rests among the highlights of Blazers lore. Portland's penchant for close games—a red flag during the regular season—worked in its favor against Houston, whose fourth-quarter execution paled in comparison to that of the battle-tested Blazers. 

As impressive as it was for them to fend off a quality opponent like the Dwight Howard-James Harden Rockets, it'll take more than surviving the first round for Terry Stotts' Blazers to realistically challenge the teams of Ramsey, Adelman or even Dunleavy in the organization's historical hierarchy.

Especially since Houston-Portland featured two teams that were, in essence, evenly matched, as their identical 54-28 records would suggest.

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The next step? Upending a San Antonio Spurs squad that represented the West in the finals last season, won 62 games this season and saw its Hall of Fame Big Three of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili eviscerate the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 of their first-round series.

The Blazers haven't sent the Spurs out of the playoffs since 1990, before David Robinson embarked upon his own decorated career. Portland, though, has some reason to believe that this club can do what Clyde Drexler and friends did nearly a quarter-century ago.

The Blazers split their season series with the Spurs, and may well have taken three out of four if not for Patty Mills' surprising heroics (29 points off the bench) shortly after the All-Star break. Portland is younger, more athletic and better rested than San Antonio and sports an offense that should be able to carve up a Spurs defense that allowed the Mavs to score 106.8 points per 100 possessions while jacking up 22.4 three-point attempts a night.

Not that Portland doesn't have plenty of its own concerns to address. Chief among those is the Blazers' defense (or lack thereof) at the point. Mills' midseason explosion was but one of many enjoyed by floor generals at the Blazers' expense this season. According to Hoops Stats, Portland allowed opposing point guards to average 23.1 points—the third most in the NBA, behind only the Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Lillard isn't entirely at fault for that, though the 23-year-old's often lackadaisical effort and execution on that end certainly didn't help. The Blazers struggled to prevent their foes from parading to the rim. According to NBA.com, Portland allowed the second-most shots within the restricted area this season.

Not that the Blazers were or are entirely doomed by this. They held their opponents to the third-lowest field-goal percentage (.568) in that precious space during the regular season. Moreover, they managed to scoot past the Rockets in Round 1, despite allowing Houston to attempt nearly 40 shots per game from the real estate nearest the rim.

Portland's apparent weakness therein is, in part, a matter of design, as noted by Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal back in November:

The Blazers aren't content to use the typical scheme employed in the Association, one that revolves around packing players into the paint for as long as possible. Instead of protecting the rim, they're conceding easy attempts there and defending the three-point arc as aggressively as possible. 

The numbers bear this out. The Blazers allowed their opponents to shoot a below-average 35.5 percent from three on the fewest attempts (18.3) during the regular season. The Rockets were able to launch plenty of three-pointers against Portland's defense in the opening round but connected on just 31.8 percent of their looks.

That scheme should come in handy against San Antonio, which led the league in three-point percentage (.397) in 2013-14 and torched the Mavs on 38.3 percent of its long-range looks in the seven-game showdown between those two Texan titans.

The Blazers must hope, too, that their perimeter brigade, led by Lillard and Wesley Matthews, comes up big against the Spurs. Portland attempted the third-most threes during the regular season, scoring 26.4 percent of its points from deep—the seventh-highest share in the league, per NBA.com. Making it rain from behind the line will be no easy feat for the Blazers, not against a Spurs team that tied Portland for the fewest attempts allowed.

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But three-point shooting alone won't be enough to extend the Blazers' Cinderella run. The Golden State Warriors, another plucky upstart with three-point prowess, shot 36.9 percent on 20.3 attempts from deep against the Spurs in last year's playoffs, only to lose in six games. The Mavs shot even better than that against San Antonio this year (37.6 percent on 22.4 three-point tries) on the way to a seven-game ouster.

If this Portland team is going to march its way up the ladder of the most beloved in the city's history, it'll have to find a way to stop Tony Parker. The 31-year-old Frenchman is San Antonio's best and most important player and has been for some time now. His masterclass against the Mavs' sieve-like backcourt (32 points on 11-of-19 from the floor, 10-of-13 from the free throw line) not only secured the series for the Spurs, but assured that they'd advance with as much ease as the final score of Game 7 (119-96) would suggest.

Simply put, when Parker's dictating the flow of the game, the Spurs are nigh on unstoppable. When he's not, they're vulnerable.

As pivotal as LaMarcus Aldridge may be to Portland's hopes, then, the Blazers' fate ultimately rests in the hands of Lillard. Assuming he and Parker are matched up against one another on both ends of the floor, it'll be up to Lillard to run his fellow All-Star ragged on offense and keep him out of the lane on defense.

That's much easier said than done and may be rendered moot if Gregg Popovich and Terry Stotts decide to slide their best perimeter defenders (i.e. Kawhi Leonard and Nicolas Batum, respectively) onto each other's best playmakers.

And even if the Blazers somehow escape this seven-game series with four wins of their own, it's not as though they'll be able to waltz right into the finals. Before that, Portland will first have to contend with either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals. The Blazers held their own against those two this season, at 4-3, though one of the four wins came in the season finale, in which Portland and L.A. played most of their starters sparingly, if at all.

All of which is to say, these Blazers have their work cut out for them if they're to assure themselves a spot atop the franchise's historical ledger. Edging out the magical '77 squad would require no less than the acquisition of this year's Larry O'Brien Trophy—a tall order, indeed, given the claim that the two-time defending-champion Miami Heat have to it.

At this point, it seems unlikely that Portland will be the last one standing among the eight teams still in contention. Then again, there appeared to be little hope of the Blazers making it this far prior to the start of the 2013-14, and even less of them avoiding a Game 7 in Houston after Chandler Parsons' layup dropped through the net with 0.9 seconds remaining in Game 6.

We all know how that turned out. We'll see what the future holds for these Blazers when they take the court for Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals in San Antonio on Tuesday.

 

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