The short-term effect of yesterday's win is obvious: series tied 2-2, Game 6 forced, Blazers stave off all-but-certain elimination. That's plenty enough--exactly enough--for now. But Saturday's win was beautiful for more reasons than the immediate. You know how for the last couple of years we've been talking and debating about the value of "playoff experience"? That game was it. That is a game the Blazers will circle and remember in coming years. Portland may not win this series--probably won't, in fact--but they just left the launching pad and rocketed into viable-team status with that victory. In the long run that may be more important.
What was so special about this game? It wasn't just that they won it, but how, when, and with whom. They won a game against a good opponent...a team that had been showing them up, challenging their pride, dancing and laughing on the Blazers' own court. They didn't win the game just for pride's sake, however. It really meant something in the series. Phoenix did not want to lose this game. This was their clincher. The Blazers were reeling, teetering over the precipice. They pulled themselves together, swung back, and won a meaningful contest against the same guys who were dominating them 48 hours prior.
The Blazers won in a fashion that transcends the boundaries of a single contest. They didn't play the perfect game. They didn't take everything away from their opponents. In fact for much of the game Phoenix found success preying on Portland's weaknesses. But the Blazers took away enough, limited critical facets of the Suns' attack at critical times while sustaining their own. This wasn't a knockout punch to the head. This was a give and take of body blows and then the Blazers, seeing an opening, going for a double-leg takedown, and forcing the Suns to submit. That's going to be a useful playoff pattern no matter what the opponent and no matter what the year.
The Blazers won with hustle, with rebounding, with ball movement, with brains and with physicality. They kept their cool no matter which way the whistles blew. They took care of the ball. This wasn't a fluke, hot shooting, a lucky bounce. This win was based on basic, repeatable playoff tenets.
Most of all the Blazers found their confidence after getting rattled. It would not have been surprising to see Phoenix bowl them over again. It would not have been surprising for Portland to come out with a great quarter or great half and then fold once the pressure got high. When Jason Richardson started hitting threes in the third period every observer in the place said, "Uh oh. Here we go again." When Amare Stoudemire started attacking the rim in the fourth and Portland was powerless to stop him the fearful chorus rose again. All of the recent evidence pointed to this being the point that Portland broke. Playoff scripts often run just so...the inferior team makes their last grand push but the superior team catches them after the wave has passed and collects another win. The Blazers did not let that happen. They categorically refused to live with that "inferior" label, to bow down to the obvious outcome, to give up on a game or a season without a fight.
These are the critical lessons a team learns on their way to playoff success. How amazing to see them all flower in the same game. How tantalizing to project that same attitude and confidence carried by a mature, healthy, amazingly talented team in a couple years...a time when we'll not just be talking about taking games but taking series, and maybe more. Battered and broken, cracked to the core and laid open before the world, you just saw the heart that will one day take the Blazers everywhere they want to go. You can circle Saturday, April 24th, 2010 as the day our boys grew up and became men. They saw what they needed to do, they did it, and they refused to let anyone stop them. Welcome to your future.