Sunday, June 4th, 2000...the Portland Trail Blazers lead the Los Angeles Lakers 71-55 in the closing seconds of the third period of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals when Lakers guard Brian Shaw banks in an improbable three-pointer to close the gap to a still-laughable 13-point margin. The Blazers would shrug off the wild throw, leading by as much as 15 with 10 minutes and change left in the fourth.
What happened next doesn't need recounting for any but the most neophyte of Blazer fans. Portland choked jumper after jumper, shooting 22% for the period. A previously-handcuffed Shaquille O'Neal came alive, dunking and waving fingers. Shaw and Kobe Bryant took it to the Blazers. Portland couldn't get a call, couldn't make a play, just couldn't cope. Nobody will forget the sickening feeling of watching that ten minutes, of seeing the Blazers surrender the biggest Game 7 comeback in playoff history, more than doubling the previous margin. I'm having to suppress a gag just recollecting it.
The Lakers went on to win the title against an over-matched Indiana Pacers squad that year. The Blazers had to console themselves with a Shaq quote:
The Blazers are a fabulous team, and this is probably a rivalry that's going to last throughout my entire career.
Yeah...not so much.
While the Lakers would build a mini-dynasty on top of their 2000 success the Blazers would follow up their run by falling off a cliff.
Let's pause for a minute and consider what might have happened had Portland held onto the lead and advanced to the Finals. Indiana was a respectable team but most observers had the Western Conference Champion beating them no matter which team that was. In all likelihood the Blazers would have won the second title in team history.
These were the salad days for franchise lifers like Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire. Both men later developed less-than-optimal reputations, leaving Portland fans disheartened. Bling on their fingers from 2000 would have outshone any annoyance with their behavior. That ten minutes was the difference between their jerseys being retired and being stuffed in bottom drawers to be used as dust rags.
The Blazers made radical changes after their Conference Finals loss, many of which hastened the negative direction of the franchise. Could the team and forward Brian Grant have come to a mutually beneficial agreement with the warmth of a title between them? Grant might have been indispensable and certainly would have been happier. At the very least defeating the Lakers would have lessened the Blazers' urge to bolster the frontcourt the next year with "Shaq Stopper" Dale Davis and the rotund Shawn Kemp, both disappointments. Or hey, if Grant couldn't be persuaded to stay, would Jermaine O'Neal have been enough with one title already in tow? Would gratitude towards Steve Smith and Scottie Pippen have made the Blazers less apt to rely on Derek Anderson, Bonzi Wells, Ruben Patterson in the coming years? Moves not made futilely chasing a missing championship could have changed the Blazers' fortunes--particularly in the PR department--even if they never won big again. Make no mistake, the Jailblazers era started the second after that Game 7 horn sounded. It would continue for the next six years.
Perceptions about the saddest or most disappointing moment in Trail Blazers history run along generational lines. Some hurt worst in '78 when Walton's foot robbed the team of a title. Others agonize more over Uncle Cliffy fumbling away the best record in the league during the '91 Conference Finals. The current generation will have the Oden cross to bear. Even though some of those moments may be more painful than 2000, none were as pivotal. Walton's injury came close but the team remained afloat, albeit in mediocrity, after. The Blazers saw a return to the NBA Finals in 1992 after the devastation of the previous year. The Oden Era never got off the ground in the first place, or at least hasn't yet. The unfathomably spectacular distance between brushing your finger against a World Championship trophy and the nuclear-winter devastation of the Jailblazers that followed, coupled with the fact that the decline wasn't injury-induced but self-induced--everything that followed being a reaction to this event--makes that fourth quarter collapse the most pivotal ten minute stretch in franchise history. An entire city could be built (or in this case destroyed) in the space between what might have been and what actually transpired. That's why the Western Conference Finals loss in 2000 easily made the #2 most pivotal moment in Trail Blazers history.
Debate and hold on for #1 below.