It was close, but no cigar. And it hurt. Read all about the glorious, tragic 1999-2000 Portland Trail Blazers season below.
The spring of 1999 saw the Blazers soar to semi-familiar heights, out-muscling the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz on the way to their first Western Conference Finals berth since 1992. The balloon deflated precipitously at the hands of Tim Duncan's stellar play and Sean Elliot's Memorial Day Miracle as the Blazers lost confidence and the series in an 0-4 sweep for the San Antonio Spurs. Portland had talent and depth but little maturity and not enough reliability.
Still the Blazers were a young team on the rise. With a little seasoning perhaps they could...what's that? Oh, that's right. Blazers General Manager Bob Whitsitt believed that seasoning was something fools did when they couldn't get a whole new steak. The agenda wasn't "win soon", it was "win NOW". Once again Trader Bob retreated to his basement laboratory to tinker for the summer. And this time he would hit a jackpot akin to the Philosopher's Stone. Portland's base metals were about to be transmuted into pure gold in his hands.
The magic started on August 2nd, 1999 with a changing of the guards. To this point in our ongoing retrospective we've only mentioned good things about Isaiah "J.R." Rider. To downplay Rider's contributions to the massive playoff wins in the '99 playoffs would be disingenuous. But make no mistake, Rider packed plenty of liabilities into his ultra-athletic frame. He was perhaps the biggest head case of his generation, and that's a generation that included Dennis Rodman. Rider would score 20 but play no defense. If he wasn't into the game--a frequent occurrence--he would drift to the right coffin corner on offense and refuse to move or accept the ball, tossing it back immediately if anyone was foolish enough to pass to him. The end result was him winning one game in three for the Blazers, being neutral in a second, and losing the third for them. And this isn't even counting his off-court behavior, with infractions including kicking women, spitting, gambling, and most famously getting busted on the side of a freeway smoking pot out of a homemade Coke can bong. Had he been putting up All-League numbers these transgressions might have been chalked up to immaturity. With his production vacillating he quickly became a hometown villain. Thus much of Portland rejoiced at the early August trade that sent Rider and fellow scorer Jim Jackson to Atlanta for 30-year old Steve Smith.
Smith was a former Olympian, a chronic All-Star (in the good sense, this time), a 20 ppg scorer who could pass and rebound. In his younger days he had become famous for the quote, "Step up and I'll lay you, step back and I'll trey you". The 6'8 great from Michigan State could do both with ease. He was also one of the most solid citizens in the league, a public relations joy. With the team needing experience, the two-year age gap between Rider and Smith became a non-factor. Portland now had a monstrous-looking backcourt of Smith and Damon Stoudamire. What a coup.
But Trader Bob wasn't done yet.
On the same day he traded for Smith, Whitsitt brought Detlef Schrempf down the highway from Seattle. During the Sonics' heyday Schrempf had been one of their most important players, manning both forward positions and playing all-around, heady ball. At 37 he was long past his prime but he was still posting 15 and 7 per night. The Blazers depth was even more formidable.
But Trader Bob wasn't done yet.
The biggest move of the summer came on October 2nd when Portland shipped Stacey Augmon, Walt Williams, Kelvin Cato, Brian Shaw, Carlos Rogers, and Ed Gray to Houston for small forward Scottie Pippen. Yes, that Scottie Pippen. Just a couple years prior Pippen had been accounted one of the Top 3 players in the league. He had since joined the Rockets and teammates Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon. When the expected championships didn't materialize Houston got tired of paying Pippen's enormous bill. That's when Portland stepped in. Never had Paul Allen's billions looked so effective. The front of nearly every sports page across the nation blared "Blazers Pick Up Pippen in Seven Player Swap". The only players the Blazers cared about losing were Williams and Augmon. When Houston cut Augmon and the Blazers re-signed him two weeks later you could have proposed a Bob Whitsitt statue for Pioneer Courthouse Square and Portlanders would not only have approved, they would have insisted it be solid gold.
By coincidence the Summer of 1999 was also when Smash Mouth's "All Star" was released. As the infectious tune blared across radio stations city-wide fans couldn't help but picture Portland's rotation:
- Point Guard: Damon Stoudamire, Greg Anthony
- Shooting Guard: Steve Smith, Bonzi Wells
- Small Forward: Scottie Pippen, Stacey Augmon, Detlef Schrempf
- Power Forward: Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant
- Center: Arvydas Sabonis, Jermaine O'Neal
The start of the season wasn't met with cheers as much as anticipatory drooling. This was going to be good.
Click through to read about the joy and pain of the '99-'00 campaign!
Every expectation Portland fans had was satisfied during the opening month of the season. The Blazers started the year 14-3. The losses were narrow enough and infrequent enough to seem like flukes. This wasn't winning, this was bludgeoning the league. The team seemed almost un-self-aware when scoring. Whoever had the ball in decent position did the deed. Rasheed Wallace, by talent the main man on the team, played an incredibly well-rounded and unselfish game. Everybody else followed suit. Nobody averaged even 13 attempts per game on the season. Wallace averaged only 16 points as the lead scorer. The top five rotation guys were all in double figures. Even more impressive was the defense. Guys like Pippen, Anthony, and Augmon were born to defend. Wallace was versatile there as well. Sabonis and Grant added size, O'Neal height and hops. The end result was a defense that, excluding overtime contests, allowed but six 100-point games to opponents all season. (Even with the OT's it was only eight.) The record ballooned to 34-11 and then Portland rattled off an 11-game winning streak. 45-11 wasn't quite '77-'78 territory but it was only a couple digits off. Late-season injuries to Sabonis kept the final win total to a comparatively modest 59-23 but that was still the second best record in the league and in team history. Blazer fans were ecstatic, for once fully looking forward to the playoffs instead of worrying about them.
First up on the post-season docket were Kevin Garnett, Terrell Brandon, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Having completed his fifth season in the league Garnett was no longer a high-school phenom, rather a bona fide star. He was in no way prepared for what the Blazers would dish out to his team, however. Pippen announced his presence by scoring 28 in the first game of the series and the Blazers never looked back. Minnesota would top 90 points exactly once, their 94-87 victory in the Twin Cities. Portland mopped up 3-1 and advanced to face the Utah Jazz in the second round for the second consecutive year.
The previous year's battle with Utah had been a blood-fest with the entire heart of the Blazers' squad required to eke out a six game victory. There was no repeat in 2000. Steve Smith, guarded mostly by slight and short Jeff Hornacek, took apart the Jazz night after night. Karl Malone scored and John Stockton passed but Utah still couldn't make a dent in Portland's lineup. Nor could they stop the backcourt leak. The Timberwolves had managed to score 90 on the Blazers just once in their series. Utah never did it. Portland's 93.2 ppg nightly average didn't look that impressive until compared to Utah's 82.2. Portland took the series 4-1. Two rounds, two losses total, and the Blazers were once again in the Conference Finals. The opponent was, who else...the Los Angeles Lakers.
We said the Blazers had the second best record in the league in 1999-00. The Lakers owned the first position, winning 67 that year. Despite the eight-game victory gap, Portland fans were confident going into the series. L.A. had 15 losses on the season. Two of those were to the Blazers. Though Shaq and Kobe were big news to this point the Lakers had not won a title with either. They had only made the Conference Finals once, a brief visit in '97-'98 during which they got swept by the Jazz. When the matchup became official the oft-voiced response of Blazer fans was, "Good! We want to go through them and we want to beat them at their best." This was going to be the revenge for the bitter loss of 1991. This would be a repeat of the glorious days of '76-'77 when a complete team prevailed over a couple of superstars and left the world stunned. It was Portland's time.
Sadly nobody informed the Lakers of this.
Game 1 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals looked disturbingly like the first game of 1997's first round wherein Shaq shellacked a shell-shocked Portland squad and sent them home whimpering. Shaq only scored 41 this time instead of 46 and Kobe managed only 13 points but the spanking was all too familiar. Portland lost 109-94. The most significant part of the game may have been the debut of the "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy. O'Neal was notoriously bad at foul shots and notoriously good at scoring everywhere else. Portland coach Mike Dunleavy came up with a blunt solution: foul Shaq anytime he caught the ball within 15 feet of the hoop. The Blazers sent the Big Bricklayer to the line 27 times in Game 1. In a sense the strategy worked, as O'Neal made only 48% of his attempts (a huge number for him). Making 48% of 27 attempts still produces 13 points, however...a healthy portion of Shaq's 41 in the game. It also led to an enormous number of fouls across the board for Portland's big men. The Blazers decided to employ the technique in more targeted fashion henceforth, limiting their fouls to obvious dunk and fourth-quarter situations. Rather than being concerned, the Lakers were laughing at the effort, secure that the Blazers were on their way down if that was the best game plan they could muster.
A funny thing happened on the way to the triumphal march, though. Finally, after years of abuse, the Blazers stood up to the bully. Game 2 saw Portland smack L.A. right in the chops behind brilliant performances from Rasheed Wallace, Steve Smith, and Scottie Pippen. For all the talent and depth in the rotation, the Blazers were still rolling dice on individual contributions most nights. The secret to Portland's success was having enough impact guys that on average they'd win despite the vacillations of individual players. There was none of that in Game 2. The dice came up sevens across the board. The Blazers dominated the Lakers on the glass, held them to 39% shooting, drew a baker's dozen more foul shots. It was a massacre. Portland was assisted by L.A.'s apparent desire to spread the wealth, going away from Shaq to satisfy other players. O'Neal attempted but 16 shots in the game, a far cry from his 25 in the first game. Shaq was famous for punishing rims and breaking backboards. On this night he did both, albeit from the foul line, making but 5 of his 17 attempts. Portland walked out of Los Angeles with a 106-77 victory...more than repayment for Game 1. Perhaps this would be a series.
Both hopes and tension were high heading into Game 3 back in Portland. Once upon a time the home court would have been secure but too many rough playoff exits had been hastened by homecourt losses in recent years. White uniforms alone would not make a difference. But if the Blazers could take the next two games they'd head back to L.A. up 3-1. The possibility was tantalizing.
The Blazers returned to a familiar them in the third game: scoring up and down the rotation. The entire starting lineup would notch double figures in this one, led by 19 from Wallace and Stoudamire. The Lakers, on the other hand, went Kobe-Shaq all night. It was a battle of the bands with one side playing "Sweet Home, Alamaba" and the other "Freebird"...nothing but the classic hits. Portland dominated the first two quarters, leading by a dozen three minutes into the third period. Then a season-long bugaboo bit them. Balanced scoring became unsure scoring as individual misses turned contagious and nobody knew where to turn. The Lakers had no such problem, putting egos aside and feeding Shaq constantly. The big guy scored 18 in the second half en route to 26 for the game. It took the Blazers well over a quarter to score 18 as a team. The finish would feature defining plays and trends, becoming a microcosm of everything upon which the series would hinge. With the Blazers down 2 and just over a minute left Scottie Pippen put a nifty move on Kobe Bryant, scoring in the lane to tie the game at 91. On the ensuing play Pippen left L.A.'s Ron Harper open in the corner to double Kobe Bryant, perhaps covering too much territory in the process. The Lakers' pass to Harper was easy and he canned the jumper to put them up 93-91. Then Pippen turned over the ball trying to make a pass. The Lakers couldn't score and Arvydas Sabonis had the last possession for Portland. He drove the lane and appeared to get hacked by Bryant but there was no call and no shot. L.A. walked out of Game 3 with a 93-91 win. Portland would have to fight to regain footing.
Game 4 was much less suspenseful. Unfortunately that was because the Blazers got their hats handed to them once again. The effort wasn't bad. Rasheed Wallace had a brilliant scoring game with 34 and Steve Smith helped with 20. Pippen was a mixed bag with 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 turnovers. Stoudamire was a non-factor, appearing more and more the critical weak link in the series. The Blazers took an enormous amount of shots to generate their points, however, shooting 39% for the game. The Lakers had no such problem with Shaq pouring in 25, Glen Rice 21, and Bryant and Harper 18 apiece. Portland fell 103-91. This was a disaster. The Lakers, not the Blazers, were leaving Portland up 3-1. This was less revenge for 1991 and more of a repeat with extra mustard on the hot dog of bitterness.
Oddly enough, it was at this time that the seeds for the blog you are now reading were sown. Not that I was blogging yet. The medium wasn't even heard of in 2000. This was the age of message boards and e-mail groups. I belonged to a close-knit collection of fans on an e-mail list...at that juncture a collection understandably down in the dumps. With a weird prescience that wasn't optimism as much as certainty I made a bold proclamation: "Guys, this series is going to seven games. The Blazers are going to surprise you. This is not over." Nowadays you will routinely read such comments in every bleak situation. It's considered unfaithful not to believe that way. But we weren't an emotional bunch. We did analysis. We talked reality. But the reality I knew was that I had this team clocked and the 2000 Blazers were more than capable of going to that seventh contest.
Skepticism about the prediction was high going into Game 5. Two hours later? Not so much. The Blazers used a physical attack, strong defense, and a 22-point, 6-steal, 4-block game from Pippen (playing with dislocated fingers, no less) to take a 96-88 victory. Portland still couldn't stop Shaq so they settled for bothering Kobe into a 4-13 effort, figuring unless O'Neal went for 50 the rest of the Lakers couldn't make up the difference. The Blazers got offensive contributions from everyone up and down the lineup except Stoudamire. Even the deep bench came to play that night. Portland left the court rejuvenated. The Lakers left grumbling and divided with O'Neal complaining about not getting the ball enough and the rest of the squad shooting him glares behind his back.
The situation didn't get better in Portland for Game 6, a contest dominated by Bryant. Trying to back up his claims to scoring dominance, Kobe took 24 shots, hit 12, and registered an impressive 33 points for the game. But asking Shaq to play second fiddle look as ridiculous as asking David Bowie to blend in with a church choir. A frustrated and foul-plagued O'Neal hit only 7 of his 17 attempts, many of them rushed, and contributed only 3 of 10 from the foul line. He scored only 17 in the game. No matter how many Bryant poured in the Blazers weren't afraid of him. Wings they could match. Shaq terrified them. Steve Smith scored 26 on his own, many of them while championing an amazing 20-0 third-quarter run. The rest of the Blazers were more than capable of making up the 7-point Kobe gap over the rest of the Lakers. Portland emerged victorious, 103-93, in front of a crowd which had been going crazy all night long. For one, glorious moment the Wallace-Pippen-Smith Blazers got accolades comparable to their Drexler and Walton counterparts. Blazermania reigned again.
Game 7 loomed large on June 4th, 2000. There was no prediction from Dave. Winning was a long shot but not impossible. The world watched and waited, all of Blazer Nation holding its breath. Recapping the series trends so far:
- Lakers prosper when going to Shaq, fail otherwise.
- Wallace and Smith prove the offensive keys for the Blazers.
- Pippen is mercurial, mixing great efforts with mistakes and turnovers.
- Stoudamire disappears entirely.
- The Blazers have a habit of building huge leads then giving them back through offensive droughts.
- When Shaq hits free throws the Lakers do much better.
The first three quarters of Game 7 were a Blazer fan's dream. Portland took the bull by the horns, double- and triple-teaming Shaq with a frenzy they had not yet displayed in the series. O'Neal inevitably had to give up the ball and, true to form, scoring by anybody else didn't matter. Behind a 13-0 surge the Blazers took the first quarter 23-16 and gave a little back in the second, exiting for the half up by 3. Wallace and Smith were having great games. Everybody else was holding on. Then the Blazers exploded in the third quarter, building a 16-point lead with but seconds to play. In a move that would set an archetype for stomach-pitting moments ever after, L.A.'s Brian Shaw hit a buzzer-beating three at the end of the period to close the margin to 13, 71-58, but it didn't seem to matter. If the Blazers could manage to hang within double-digits in the fourth this game was over.
And that, my friends, is when the Lakers decided to go to Shaq again. O'Neal scored 9 points in the final period. Shaw added two more three-pointers. The lead wasn't melting away. It wasn't evaporating. The Lakers just nuked it and it vaporized. The Blazers looked panicked, slowing down the ball, attacking with trepidation instead of confidence, and finding one of their famous offensive dry spells at exactly the wrong time. Wallace wasn't hitting. Smith wasn't hitting. The rest of the Blazers hadn't been factors during the game. When the margin fell below 10 Blazer fans began to get a sick feeling in their stomach. When Bryant hit two free throws to put the Lakers up 81-79 with a minute and a half remaining, they vomited. Pippen fumbled the ball. Smith got bullied. Sabonis fouled out. Wallace bricked shots he could hit in his sleep. Everything went wrong at once. Portland ended up scoring only 13 in the final period. The Lakers posted 31. Game 7 had included nearly every theme from the series stuffed into 48 minutes of court time. In the end a finger-wagging Shaq and his buddies were on their way to the NBA Finals to face an over-matched Indiana Pacers squad. They would claim their first title of the O'Neal era. Blazers fans would watch in horror, wondering "what if".
The 2000 Western Conference Finals would become a classic for all the wrong reasons. The Blazers had been pushed to the brink, had pushed back hard, but ended up nose-diving over the cliff and exploding in spectacular fashion. Even with all the moves, all the talent, all the anticipation, it wasn't enough. No...more than that. It was like the entire three-year heartache of the Drexler Finals failures jammed mercilessly into 12 minutes. A whole new generation of fans became acquainted with the infamous Blazer Heartache through that Game 7 ending. The series' scars have since become an indelible part of Portland's collective consciousness.
Following the devastating defeat Trader Bob donned his lab coat yet again, determined to do more. It had worked for three seasons straight. Why not try again?
Only this time it would be too much. The grand experiment was about to turn toxic.
Next Time: Bob goes too far...
As always, we invite you to share your recollections of this period in Blazers history below.