Think Your Team Should Blow It Up? Before You Do, Remember the Blazers

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2019

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard reacts after making the game-winning shot at the buzzer against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in Portland, Ore. The Trail Blazers won 118-115. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

TUALATIN, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers' unlikely playoff run came to an end when a Damian Lillard three-point attempt from the right corner rimmed out at the buzzer, the final nail in a four-game sweep at the hands of the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.

The next day, the Blazers took time to reflect on what had been an unforgettable playoff run while also taking steps to ensure that this group will stay together for years to come.

On Tuesday morning, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that Lillard and the Blazers are expected to agree to a four-year, $191 million extension sometime this summer, which will all but ensure the four-time All-Star will spend the rest of his career in Portland. Lillard essentially confirmed at his Tuesday exit interview that he plans to sign long term.

"I don't understand why that's a question," he told reporters.

About an hour later, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey revealed that head coach Terry Stotts had agreed to a contract extension minutes before the pair walked into the team's video room for their end-of-season press conference.

The Blazers' decision to run it back is a lot less controversial this time around. Making the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years buys a lot of goodwill.

This time last year, Portland was coming off a disappointing first-round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, just one year after being swept in the first round by the Warriors. Dating back to 2016, the Blazers had lost 10 playoff games in a row, which led to all the questions that usually get asked during that kind of cold spell: Was Stotts the right coach for this team? Could Lillard and CJ McCollum be the two best players on a team that could go deep in the playoffs? Would there be major changes to the roster around Lillard?

"I can't speak for other organizations, but I've got to think something would have been blown up by now," Blazers center Meyers Leonard said Tuesday.

It would have been more than understandable—in this age where teams strive to contend either for championships or lottery balls, and nothing in between—if Olshey had pulled the plug on Stotts and attempted to move McCollum for multiple pieces, resetting the core around Lillard.

Instead, Olshey doubled down on the bet that the team he had built was better than its playoff record indicated. That if the Blazers just stayed the course, maybe some breaks would go their way and they could finally contend for something meaningful.

It didn't come in the way anyone expected, but he was right.

This Blazers' playoff run was nothing short of remarkable. Their hopes of making noise in the postseason appeared all but dead in the water March 25, when starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a gruesome leg injury—one that will sideline him well into next season. McCollum also missed 10 games in March and April with a knee injury.

Everyone knows what happened next. Lillard capped off a dominant first-round performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder by hitting one of the greatest shots in postseason history.

He struggled against the Denver Nuggets in the second round, but the Blazers pulled out a seven-game series win thanks to contributions from role players, ranging from midseason acquisitions Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter (playing with a separated shoulder while also fasting for Ramadan) to Seth Curry to second-year big man Zach Collins.

Every time the Blazers were counted out, they found a way to get things done. That luck ran out in the conference finals—even without Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, the talent gap with Golden State was too wide. But making it that far was something the Blazers hadn't done since 2000, when a team led by Damon Stoudamire, Rasheed Wallace and Arvydas Sabonis lost in seven games to the Shaq and Kobe Lakers. Getting to the third round, even though it ended in a sweep, was a galvanizing experience for this group.

"For us to get over that hump and get into the Western Conference Finals, it was reassuring to me," Lillard said. "Like, OK, it was hard, and it took a lot out of us, but it's definitely possible. It's a reality. And I think people who might not have believed it beforepeople who thought I was crazy for believing we could push that far beforenow I'm sure a lot of people believe in it more than they did at that time."

The Blazers caught some breaks. The Thunder team they beat in the first round featured an extremely limited version of Paul George, whose shoulder hadn't been 100 percent since the All-Star break. (George underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff shortly after the end of Oklahoma City's season.)

The Nuggets, despite an excellent regular-season record, were a young and inexperienced bunch, which came back to haunt them at inopportune times when normally dependable shooters missed open look after open look.

Even the Warriors were without Durant, who had been the best player in the playoffs until his Game 5 calf injury in the second round against the Houston Rockets. The Blazers led by at least 15 points in each of the final three games of that series before blowing those leads each time. It's well within the realm of possibility that a couple of those games could have gone their way to make it a series, and then Portland would have had a real shot at its first trip to the Finals since 1992.

It would have taken a lot of luck, yes, but every team that isn't the historically dominant Warriors needs some luck. And the Blazers were in a position to take advantage of the breaks they were given because they bet on their continuity and chemistry.

It turns out, there are worse things to be in the NBA than consistently competitive every year, even if winning a title is a long shot. The Memphis Grizzlies of the Grit-and-Grind era never had a serious shot at contending for a championship, but their fans wouldn't trade those Mike Conley-Marc Gasol-Zach Randolph teams for anything. Sometimes, just sticking around year after year is enough.

"We've known what we were capable of doing," forward Maurice Harkless said. "We've had some tough breaks the past few years. Even this year, we feel like we could have done more. So it is satisfying to finally see some success from all the work we've put in with this group. Being able to make it this far is definitely encouraging. It makes you want more."

There's no guarantee the Blazers will be playing into late May next season. The roster around Lillard and McCollum could look different—Kanter, Hood, Curry and veteran forward Al-Farouq Aminu are all free agents and could price themselves out of returning to Portland. There's still no guarantee Nurkic plays at all next season, and there's no way to gauge how he'll look when he does return.

But Lillard, McCollum and Stotts will be back, and as this run has shown, you never know when a team will catch the right breaks and be positioned to take advantage of them.

"The one thing I will say has been consistent with this team is they're going to be better than everyone thinks they are," Olshey said. "There's no way to quantify character, chemistry, coaching, the culture.

"There's some vindication with showing that kind of consistency that this model works."


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter, @highkin.


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