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1990-91 was the greatest season in Portland Trail Blazers history. I don't believe there can be any argument about that.
Fresh off a summer of great moves and a season that saw a return to the NBA Finals, the Blazers made another canny exchange in August of '91, sending second-year guard Byron Irvin plus a pair of (ultimately insignificant) future draft picks to the Sacramento Kings for guard Danny Ainge. The point guard on Boston's famous championship teams, Ainge was now stuck in purgatory, helping nobody. The Kings needed young talent. The Blazers were in "win now" mode. It was a brilliant swap. Despite his penchant for firing one up as soon as he came in the game to check how hot he was, Ainge provided championship experience, smart play, and well-timed shooting at both backcourt positions, giving Portland a three-guard rotation not seen before or since. Minus the experience and a little bit of the smarts, Cliff Robinson did the same for Portland in the frontcourt. The Blazers now had a talented and versatile top seven that was the envy of the league.
The mood entering the season was confident. Last year's Finals loss seemed more aberration than harbinger. This team was primed. This team was rightfully a champion. This was the year to prove it.
The Blazers added another adjective to that list within the first couple weeks of the season: unstoppable. Portland rattled off eleven straight wins to start their campaign, the ultimate victory coming on November 25th versus the visiting San Antonio Spurs. You will recall that the Spurs had pushed Portland to seven games in the conference semis the year before, losing in overtime largely because of a momentary blunder from point guard Rod Strickland. With the memory of being a single turnover away from vanquishing the Blazers fresh in their minds, the Spurs came in loaded for bear. Unfortunately they weren't facing bear that night. They were facing a seven-headed giant with tanks for feet, bazookas for arms, laser eyes, and a really smashy club soon to feature a Spurs-shaped indent. The Blazers barely missed a shot in the first period: running, ramming, jamming, and leaving a lumpy grey and black stain all over the floor en route to a 49-18 rampage in the opening 12 minutes. This didn't happen against an expansion team. This was one of the top four teams in the West, sporting last year's league MVP. They proved a mere speed bump as the Blazers blasted out to a 19-1 start to the season. The Blazers weren't just for real. Everybody else's reality had to be measured against them.
The season was typified by winning, winning, and more winning. Paraphrasing the great Buck Williams, "We lose sometimes, but we don't do it twice." Indeed, they would experience only four losing "streaks" throughout the season, three of those consisting of exactly two games each. Nobody solved the Blazers. It was like playing with a Rubik's Cube that would give you a right cross every time you got close. The crowning achievement of the regular season came on Friday, March 29th when the Blazers defeated a highly-motivated and fully-staffed Lakers squad in L.A. behind the heroics of Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, and especially Clyde Drexler. Portland would defeat L.A. again at home two weeks later for their 60th win and would finish the year 63-19. It was the highest regular season win total of all time. Nobody was slowing this team, let alone stopping them.
The Blazers got a little check in the first round of the playoffs, facing the Seattle Supersonics. Back in the '70's Seattle had ascended in Portland's wake, dethroning the Blazers as conference bullies. The 90's would see history repeat and this series showed it. Dale Ellis, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and company pushed the Blazers to five games, Portland winning handily at home but losing two on the road. Still, Portland prevailed.
The first-round jitters departed as the Blazers lined up against John Stockton, Karl Malone, and the Utah Jazz in the second series. The Jazz duo has since become legendary. In 1990 they were just starting to come into their own. Malone was a bruising bully, Stockton tricky and smart. But two future Hall-of-Famers weren't nearly enough to challenge the Portland juggernaut. The Blazers dismissed the Jazz in just five games setting up the clash with the Lakers everybody knew was coming since the start of the season.
Portland had avoided L.A. during their dash to the Finals the previous year, the Lakers having fallen to the upstart Phoenix Suns. Golden State and Houston proved no challenge to L.A. in 1991 though. The Blazers were ready for this. They had homecourt advantage. They had owned the Lakers during the latter part of the regular season. The set-up was perfect. Blazer fans, especially, desired to dance on the Lakers' graves on the way to the inevitable coronation. It was only fitting.
Portland's fans were stunned (and for the first time in a year, worried) when the Lakers came to Memorial Coliseum and took Game 1. Even though the margin of victory was narrow, history showed that this wasn't how the Blazers won playoff series. Only once had the Blazers taken a seven-game series in which they lost the first game, that being the '76-'77 Finals contest against the 76'ers...and that loss came on the road. Confidence returned when the Blazers took the second game at home but then fled again as L.A. won both contests at their place. Portland was staring down the wrong end of a 1-3 deficit. Moreover their play seemed flat, slower than normal, almost uninspired, particularly on the road. After taking Game 5 at home to pull within 2-3 the mission was clear: find a way to win the sixth game and then take the deciding match at home.
Unfortunately Game 6 started much the way Games 3 and 4 had. The Blazers looked lost and disjointed. L.A. built a lead and took it into the fourth quarter. Then somebody, somewhere flipped a switch and the Real Blazers returned from their series-long hiatus. It was like the team woke up and realized they were actually going to get bounced from the playoffs unless they did something. The revolution started on the defensive end where the Blazers swarmed the suddenly slow and old-looking Lakers. Portland harassed shots, stole balls, and ran every L.A. mistake for a goal. The Lakers looked bewildered now. They'd just had a can of red and black attack unleashed on them. Their lead thinned drastically. With just over a minute left Drexler stole the ball and jammed, cutting the margin to one. "Here it comes!" cried Blazers fans everywhere. Then the Blazers poked the ball away again and Porter took the ball down the left alley. Cliff Robinson was streaking ahead on the right, Kersey coming on Porter's flank in what turned out to be a 4-on-1 break. Porter flipped the ball to Kersey for a drive on an out-of-position Byron Scott but Kersey saw Robinson approaching the hoop on the other side and passed to him. The ball arrived a little low and slipped right...through...Cliff's...fingers. In their most critical, game-and-series-saving moment the Blazers came up with a four man break, zero points, and no lead.
Portland ended up with the final possession of the game facing a 91-90 deficit. The ball went to Porter on the right-hand elbow. Terry rose, fired, and the shot hit the rim and caromed into the air long. Magic Johnson famously grabbed the rebound and tossed the ball high down the court to burn the closing second of the game. The season was over.
The Blazers had slashed the Lakers throughout the season but forgot to put the stake in them. In their most glorious year ever the Blazers never made the Finals. Instead they'd watch L.A. go on to lose 1-4 to Michael Jordan in his inaugural title campaign, L.A.'s crowning achievement being defense bad enough to create a new cottage industry: Jordan highlight reels. 1991 would be known as the year a Gatorade campaign was born but Portland's title hopes died. It was a crushing moment, the most bitter imaginable.
The mood in the summer of 1991 was sick. Not the good, modern definition of "sick", but real pit-of-your-stomach, empty-but-gonna-hurl-anyway sick. Hearty fans opined that the Blazers had another run in them. They were correct but failing after the pump had been primed inspired little confidence. The miracle season of '89-'90 ended without a title. The steamroller campaign of '90-'91 ended without a title. What would bring the gold to Portland?
Few moves were needed in the off-season. No matter the final outcome 63 wins were 63 wins. Aside from drafting a young point guard named Robert Pack the Blazers stood pat. Everybody, management included, was just waiting for the games to begin again. If they could have started the season the day after the Finals ended the Blazers would have gone for that.
Redemption didn't come immediately even when the season did roll around. It's hard to win a playoff series, let alone a title, in November. The Blazers lacked their customary fire and enthusiasm, battling a reasonably tough schedule to a 13-9 start culminating in a loss to the Pistons on December 13th. Then they woke up. Portland's 9-loss total wouldn't double to 18 until a March 1st loss in Chicago. By then they had 39 victories. They'd rattle off a seven-game winning streak immediately after and finish the season with a quite respectable 57-25 record, good enough for another division win. Finally the playoffs were here!
Even with the the continued winning and generally good play, however, you could tell this season was different. The prior two runs had been made as a team. From '89 to '91 the Blazers busted down the door with 5-7 players and never let you off the ground. 1991-92 was the year of Clyde. He averaged 25 points on the season. By comparison Porter notched 18 and nobody else was over 13. Portland's M.O. was to defend and let Drexler push the offense over the top. In these playoffs the Blazers would go exactly as far as Drexler could take them.
As the Blazers turned the corner into the post-season guess who they saw first? That's right...last year's ultimate villains, the Los Angeles Lakers. Humbled by the Bulls, even more aged, and most importantly without the services of Magic Johnson who had recently confessed that he had contracted the AIDS virus, the Lakers had managed only 43 wins and a 6th place finish in the division. Ironically Clyde Drexler had been on his way to this year's All-Star Game MVP award before he and the entire Eastern Conference defense stepped aside and let Johnson score easily and repeatedly to take the honor. There would be no duplication of that gesture during this series for Magic's former teammates. Putting Johnson's absence aside, this series was like meeting the guy who had beat you up last week in a dark alley, except now he's drunk and on crutches. The Blazers pulverized the Lakers, letting them escape with only a single overtime victory. Portland was moving on to face the Phoenix Suns.
The telling feature of Portland's 4-1 series win over the Suns was spectacular play by the Blazer guards. With Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Jeff Hornacek, and Dan Majerle the Suns remained a huge scoring threat, albeit a little light on defense. No matter how many points Phoenix scored, however, the Blazers seemed to score more...largely thanks to Porter and Drexler. Porter topped 30 points twice in the series. Drexler managed it thrice. The pinnacle came in a double-overtime Game 4 victory in Phoenix during which Clyde and Terry both played 51 minutes and scored 33 and 31 respectively. After five games total another opponent went down. The thrilling scoring displays and relatively easy handling of a scary team proved the shot in the arm Blazer fans needed. Enthusiasm was back and people believed again. Maybe this team was for real!
That belief appeared to be confirmed in the Conference Finals versus the increasingly-intimidating Utah Jazz. The Blazers won the first two games at home, the second behind an amazing 41-point outburst by Porter. After losing two on the road Portland took Game 5 and then proved themselves legit by closing out the Jazz in Salt Lake, always a difficult place to play, let alone in a series-ending game. The convincing 105-97 Game 6 margin proved that the Blazers were serious. A Finals date with the defending champion Bulls awaited.
This Finals series was a matchup made in storyline heaven. On one side you had Michael Jordan, the greatest player in the game. (Scottie Pippen had not yet achieved legendary status yet. so Jordan was considered the sole focal point of the Bulls.) On the other side you had Clyde Drexler and a team of Blazers. If Clyde was a notch below Michael it wasn't far. Would Portland's remaining six rotation players make up the difference?
In Portland the view was slightly different. In some ways the Bulls were ersatz champions, holding the title that belonged to the Blazers by right and would have been theirs in fact save for that inexplicable loss to the infernally undead Lakers. The '90-'91 Blazers would have beaten the as yet title-less Bulls. Could the '91-'92 version rob the trophy back?
The problem was, as we said at the outset, this year's version of the Blazers wasn't as much a team as it was Clyde and Everybody Else. In the 1992 Finals it became clear that Michael and Everybody Else trumps anybody else and Everybody Else. Drexler started the series poorly, scoring but 16 in Game 1 while Jordan hit a barrage of three-pointers and gave his famous commercial-worthy shrug en route to 39. The Bulls destroyed the Blazers 122-89. The Blazers revisited 1990 by winning the second game in overtime but sadly continued their retracing of the Detroit series by losing Game 3 at home. They rescued themselves from complete disaster by winning Game 4 and evening the series 2-2 but lost a critical Game 5 when Jordan's 46 beat Drexler's 30 and nobody else could make up the difference. Cruelly enough Portland built a 15-point lead in the second half of Game 6 only to go virtually scoreless in the game's closing minutes to let the Bulls take the final bow. Chicago won the game by four and their second straight title.
The '91-'92 campaign was great, the playoffs especially full of memorable moments. Sadly it held the aura of a light bulb being turned on for a final time. You flip the switch, see a mighty flash, then that light doesn't work anymore. Drexler's dominance couldn't conceal what every Blazer fan now began to suspect. The Blazers couldn't win it all by surprising the league. They couldn't win it all by dominating the league. They couldn't win it all by skewering the league behind their superstar. The Blazers just couldn't win it all.
That perception would lead to moves designed to rejuvenate the roster...moves which would ultimately herald a sea change in franchise philosophy, ushering in the next Blazer era even as the embers of this one were dying.
Tomorrow: The Whitsitt Era begins.
Share your impressions of the '90-'91 and '91-'92 seasons below.