Only three teams in NBA history have recovered from a 3-0 playoff deficit to force a Game 7: the 1951 New York Knicks, 1994 Denver Nuggets and 2003 Portland Trail Blazers. None of them ended up closing the deal.
Portland’s 103-92 Game 4 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night, a win that winnowed the latter's lead in the Western Conference semifinal to 3-1, might have been enough to whip Rip City into believing in the impossible.
Lest we resort to Disney spins, however, a cold truth: The Blazers have no chance of stealing this series. Not against these Spurs. Not this season.
Good thing, then, that Monday wasn’t about this season, about prolonging the inevitable for the sake of fairy-tale talismans.
What was Portland’s convincing win about, you ask? The short answer is, of course, the future. But you already knew that.
Truth be told, you might already know what that future looks like, particularly if you bleed Blazers black and red.
For the unschooled or the cynical—the sour souls bedecked in Bill Walton throwbacks for whom it may take a week or two to see the forest for the trees—let us venture a scene.
Picture Nic Batum, he of a triple-double-flirting 14 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists, packing the stat sheet just a bit tighter.
Picture Thomas Robinson asserting himself as a steady ancillary presence—the anchor of a bench too often prone to floating away.
Picture Wesley Matthews roving the arc, a condor come to turn dead possessions into three-pointers aplenty.
Picture LaMarcus Aldridge redefining his prime along the lines of permanent greatness.
Finally, picture Damian Lillard—the pugnacious point guard whom Tony Parker pummeled with pick-and-roll perfection—learning lessons he’ll never forget.
Lessons he’ll learn to levy to increasingly jaw-dropping degrees, designated as he’s been—accurately, it should be noted—as one of the NBA’s premier talents.
Picture all of this because, even if this winds up their lone series win, the Blazers just authored one hell of a heavenly look into their beautiful basketball future.
Picture it because after a full season of turning back the naysayers, Portland—as Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal recently wrote—has earned the right to finally, formally belong.
They weren't supposed to get off to a quick start and spend a significant amount of time atop the Western Conference standings, not after the preseason predictions. ESPN's summer forecast had Rip City finishing at No. 10 with a 38-44 record. I had the team falling in at No. 11, but doing so with a 40-42 record, during my set of predictions right before the start of the 2013-14 campaign.
After their hot start, they weren't supposed to keep looking like an elite squad, not with an inexperienced point guard leading the charge and certainly not with a shallow bench full of mediocre players.
After they remained in the thick of the playoff conversation, they weren't supposed to beat the Houston Rockets in a dramatic six-game series, one that featured plenty of big shots from both teams.
The Portland Trail Blazers aren't supposed to be here. But they are.
There’s little to suggest the Western Conference will be anything but better come next November. And if this year’s Golden State Warriors proved anything, it’s that heightened expectations don’t always produce heightened performance.
At the same time, there’s something to be said about organizational stability, something Portland has worked hard to foster in the years following the forgettable—if ostensibly successful—Jail Blazers epoch.
In head coach Terry Stotts, owner Paul Allen has landed a skipper steeped in equal parts strategic savvy, statistical progressivism and communicative grace, all underscored by an even-keeled calm perfect for Portland, a city whose genetic congeniality seems belied by its almost barbaric passion for Blazers basketball.
The fire and fury—that’ll be the province of Portland’s core. For in Aldridge, Lillard and Batum, the Blazers boast a Big Three with something few other hardwood trios have: homegrown chemistry.
Short of Allen digging deep into his wallet (eminently possible, when you own a suborbital spaceship), the Blazers are likely to stand largely pat in terms of roster and salaries heading into the 2014-15 season.
But while its bench could certainly stand a bolstering, Portland promises to enter next season as a solid pick to give the Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder a run for their money as the class of the Western Conference.
The stings wrought by San Antonio’s powerhouse playoff March—made, it so often seemed, as if Portland weren’t even there at all—are sure to smart. That’s what May defeats are supposed to do.
Indeed, if any team knows about supposed tos, it’s these Blazers, who, even in imminent defeat, have taught us all a little something about expectations.
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