From Mount Tabor to Slabtown, Rip City has been waiting for this. After a 19-year hiatus, the Portland Trail Blazers are headed to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000.
CJ McCollum was the hero at Pepsi Center on Sunday, scoring 37 points and grabbing nine rebounds, closing the game with an incredible fourth quarter effort as the Blazers beat the Denver Nuggets, 100-96. It’s a game that fans in Portland will be talking about long after this season concludes, whenever that may be.
Right now it’s a celebration. In Oregon, Instagram stories have filled with posts of people screaming, crying, and hugging their friends, sometimes back-to-back and often all at once. Twitter has been set ablaze, the caps lock button stuck for some, a form of Internet yelling omnipresent. Phone calls have been made between fathers and daughters, e-mails sent, and horns honked down Hawthorne, Burnside, Couch, and Flanders streets.
After a long winter, the sun is shining in Portland. But this story started long before May 12, 2019.
At a distance, it might not be obvious that Sunday meant more than just a redemption of what went wrong last season for this team. Their Game 7 win over the Nuggets was, for many fans, cosmic payback for so much of what has been “almost” for the Blazers; a salve to heal the wounds of nearly two decades.
For the sweep at the hands of the Pelicans last year.
For the LaMarcus Aldridge-led teams that saw their hopes dashed when Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles against the Dallas Mavericks in 2015.
For the injury-plagued teams who had to do without No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden.
For the shortened legacy of Brandon Roy, whose career finished having never made it past the first round, and who never played in a Game 7.
For the fourth quarter collapse to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, a Game 7 disaster that saw that team fail to make it out of the first round again.
Quietly, an underlying opinion in Portland is that the franchise is snakebitten. A culture of supporting their lovable losers — even if “losers” isn’t a fair description — was how Blazers supporters operated. Deprived of stars to injury, coming up short, failing projections… all of it wired the synapses in the collective brains of Portlanders to expect the worst. And with a hum-drum offseason in 2018, who could blame Rip City on their lack of belief that this spring would be any different?
That thinking started to shift as the 2018-19 season started to gather steam. Before, the Blazers were criticized for keeping its major core intact. But at a certain point, that consistency began to be additive for Portland. This year, outside of Lillard, this team’s chemistry slowly became its best asset.
The Blazers swelled forward, with Jusuf Nurkic coming forth as Portland’s second-most important player on both sides of the ball. Mid-season additions of Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter bolstered Portland’s bench, and guys like Zach Collins, Seth Curry, Evan Turner, and Jake Layman all produced for Portland in a way they hadn’t before.
Still, heading into this postseason, gallows humor was the vernacular of choice in Multnomah County. Nurkic broke his leg with three weeks left in the regular season, and despite a strong coming on by Moe Harkless late in the year, it wasn’t a guarantee that the plucky Blazers would be able to get out of the first round.
Now Portland is heading to the Western Conference Finals to take on the Golden State Warriors. That in and of itself is medicine for the soul of Rip City.
Portland has been one of the best franchises in the NBA since 2000. That’s due to their dedicated fanbase and because of their former owner, the late Paul Allen. The Microsoft billionaire’s willingness to spend was only surpassed by his desire to win, and Portland has had just five losing seasons since the last time it was in the WCF.
Call it small market disease, underdog syndrome, or a chip on their shoulder, Blazers fans have craved the respect they’ve felt they deserved. They have wanted it for being good but not great; for loving this team without question; for being an outlier in success for a city its size. And yet, real or imagined, the answer has always come back: what have you done lately? In beating Denver, Portland now has something real — something material — to offer in support of how they’ve felt about this team all along.
So injuries, “almosts”, and alley-oops be damned. This one you can’t take away from the Blazers.