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The History of the Portland Trail Blazers: The Drexler Era Part 2

Blazer's Edge reminisces about the history of the Portland Trail Blazers. Next up: 1990, and one of the most shocking Finals appearances in NBA history.

Rich Adelman, 1,000 wins later.
Rich Adelman, 1,000 wins later.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Trail Blazers had steamed into the 1988-89 season full of high expectations for their core of Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, and Terry Porter.  These young hotshots were bolstered by veterans Steve Johnson and Kiki Vandeweghe plus a pair of promising centers in Sam Bowie and Kevin Duckworth.  Those expectations had foundered cruelly on the rocks of injury, lack of chemistry, and chronic defensive problems.  By the summer of 1989 Vandeweghe had been traded and Coach Mike Schuler had been fired.  Just weeks into the off-season Johnson was left available to the Minnesota Timberwolves in an expansion draft and was gone.  The Blazers approached the 1989 NBA draft as a loose coalition of developing players, absent veterans, absent glue, absent defensive prowess, absent toughness, absent depth, and seemingly absent direction after their disappointing 39-win season the year before.  Fortunately for the Portland faithful they were about to have the greatest off-season in the history of the franchise.  Surprisingly this designation would be earned with just two moves.

On June 24th the Blazers made the most effective single trade they've ever managed (note that's effective, not lopsided), sending oft-injured center Bowie to the New Jersey Nets for power forward Buck Williams.  Though Williams had been a popular star in New Jersey the Nets were willing to deal him because he was 28, heading inevitably past his prime, and they were getting a center in return.  The Blazers wanted to acquire him because he dovetailed perfectly with every need the team had:

  • He was a veteran on a team that lacked them.
  • He played power forward.  The Blazers had run through a half dozen of those in the past five years.
  • He played defense.
  • He was tough as nails.
  • He didn't need the ball to be effective but could score when called upon, averaging 18+ per game for most of his career.
  • He played inside and rebounded, attributes which (despite his size) Duckworth lacked.  Duck faded from contact, preferring the face-up jumper.  Buck created contact, preferring to jump in your face.
  • He was one of the ultimate chemistry guys in the league.

Adding Williams to the Trail Blazers lineup was like adding lemon to honey, ketchup to french fries, death to the salmon mousse.  It made the meal.  He was literally everything the Blazers had been missing in a single package.

Portland struck again three days later in the draft with a second-round pick, selecting somewhat-troubled Connecticut forward Clifford Robinson.  6'10", mobile, and offensive minded, Robinson was the precursor of a new type of big man.  Traditional power forwards and centers relied on throwing their weight around.  Cliff banked on outrunning and outgunning them, rising for the jumper or getting to the hoop before they moved their ponderous feet.  He could defend, get his own shot, and man any of the three frontcourt positions.

Portland's first-round selection in the '89 draft was guard Byron Irvin, soon to become famous for yet another shrewd trade.  In the third round Portland picked up a young Croatian star named Drazen Petrovic, as pure a shooter as the league has ever seen and dubbed in his own country "The Croatian Jordan".

Within 72 hours the Blazers had solved their depth and size issues and picked up a couple promising guards in the bargain.  The Williams acquisition set tongues to wagging all around town.  The only thing the Blazers lacked was a center to back up Duckworth.  In an exact reversal of the 1984 off-season Portland brought back Wayne Cooper, originally traded to make room for Bowie, now filling the gap Sam's departure left behind.  The Blazers were loaded up and ready for the '89-'90 campaign.

Most folks though the Blazers had a chance to be good--very good--in the upcoming season but nobody could have dreamed what an immediate and wild success this new lineup would be.  Portland opened up the season 15-5, albeit aided by a semi-weak schedule, but nonetheless a far cry from the near-.500 beginnings of seasons past.  The Blazers did everything well.  They rebounded, they ran, they defended, they scored.  Drexler was still the mainstay but he spread the ball around more.  His teammates responded to open shots with devastating accuracy.  Terry Porter shot 46% on the season and that was by far the lowest among the starting lineup.  The prior season the team had run hard, scored 114.6 per game, but also allowed 113.1.  The '89-'90 Blazers kept every bit of the scoring (114.2) and pace but allowed only 107.9 points, an immediate drop of more than 5 points per game.  It was like a miracle diet dessert:  all of the flavor, none of the guilt.  And the hits just kept on coming.   At the end of January the record was 31-12.  Mid-March saw a 10-game winning streak, leaving the team 48-18.   On Tuesday, March 27th the Blazers spanked the dominant Los Angeles Lakers 130-111 to go 50-20.  By this time the Coliseum crowd had gone certifiably bonkers.  Signs were everywhere.  Noise was deafening.  Blazermania had returned.

And it was only going to get better.

The Blazers completed their regular-season campaign with a meaningless but still satisfying drubbing of the Lakers, compiling a 59-23 record for the season.  There was no doubt in anybody's mind that this team was legit.  Unfortunately the Western Conference had sprouted multiple elite teams in this era.  San Antonio featured league MVP David Robinson and high-octane gunners.  Phoenix sported speed-meister Kevin Johnson and torrential scorer Tom Chambers.  John Stockton and Karl Malone had just come into their primes in Utah.  And of course there were the old bulls of the block, the Lakers.  The Blazers were out of their minds about having won 59 games this year.  The Lakers shrugged as they won 63.  Plenty of optimism accompanied Portland's foray into the post-season but it was accompanied by a strangled gulp or two.  The Blazers had fared poorly against far worse teams in their very recent history.  Would this season prove different?

First up on the playoff docket was a matchup with the Dallas Mavericks.  They still featured Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Adrian Dantley, and Sam Perkins joined with an athletic young center named Roy Tarpley.  The Blazers nailed them to the wall, taking two games at home and saving their most decisive victory for the deciding third game on the road.  Just like that the first-round jinx was gone.  Next up were the Spurs.

San Antonio was no joke with Robinson, power forward Terry Cummings, sweet marksman Sean Elliot, and flashy point guard Rod Strickland.  Worse, just when they needed him most the Blazers had to play without Kevin Duckworth, victim of a broken hand in the last game of the Dallas series.  Now the young and athletic Robinson would be matched up against either aging Wayne Cooper or a power forward.  The Spurs were deep enough to take advantage of any double teams against their big man.  The Blazers were in trouble.

The series soon took on a familiar pattern.  The Blazers won the first two home games but got crushed in the next two in San Antonio.  Portland took Game 5 at home 138-132 but took two overtimes to do it.  The Spurs were creeping closer.  San Antonio had no such difficulty in Game 6, winning by 15 on their home floor.  It was down to Game 7 and the Spurs had shown every sign of narrowing whatever gap existed between the two teams.  The lump in the throat was getting bigger.

Excitement mixed with understandable nervousness as the teams assembled for Game 7.  That nervousness turned to relieved bedlam as Duckworth, in uniform and sans cast, strode down the locker room tunnel during team warm-ups, going against doctor's orders to give his team any kind of edge against Robinson.  And the Blazers desperately needed the edge.  San Antonio countered every punch with one of their own and the Blazers had to scramble from behind just to force the game into a gut-wrenching overtime.  Neither team could find any permanent advantage.  Something had to break.

The score was knotted at 103 with 30 seconds remaining in the extra period, San Antonio had the ball and control.  Suddenly Rod Strickland whipped an incredibly fancy pass over the back of his head to a cutter that only he saw...because there was no cutter.  Kersey, never one to quit on a play, scrambled for the errant toss and then hurled the ball full-force down the court to a streaking Drexler.  Clyde was awarded a breakaway foul, sank the free throws, and the Blazers scored on the ensuing possession to go up four.  After a short exchange in which the Spurs cut the lead back to three Porter would end up intercepting San Antonio's last attempt at an inbounds pass to seal the series.  Portland's players jumped all over the court together, celebrating their first return to the Conference Finals since the long-ago championship season.

On the other side of the bracket the Phoenix Suns had conquered the Lakers in a mild upset.  Now the Blazers would face Johnson, Chambers, Eddie Johnson, Dan Majerle, and a crew quite capable of blowing away any team in the league with their offense.  Continuing the trend from the Spurs series the Blazers squeaked by in their first two games at home, winning the pair by a total of three points, then lost handily on the road.  Portland took Game 5 at home then played a heady, determined game to stun the Suns in Phoenix, 112-109.  The Blazers were returning to the NBA Finals.

That Game 6 victory gave rise to a legendary Blazer fan moment when radio host Scott Lynn announced during his post-game show that the Blazers' plane, direct from Phoenix, would be arriving at the Hillsboro Airport later that evening.  Since half the city was driving around honking their horns like crazy people anyway it was a simple matter for folks to turn those steering wheels towards the sleepy suburb.  Thousands of fans descended upon the wholly-unsuspecting facility.  They lined the roads.  They perched in trees.  A fence technically separated the tarmac from the rest of the world but dozens of people climbed over it until it simply broke and then hundreds marched through.  When the Blazers' plane landed in the late-night darkness they found a cheering horde awaiting them.  As the media had followed the masses microphones were ready and various players made impromptu speeches, each to a louder roar.  It took hours to get home that night along the narrow roads winding from the tiny airport but nobody cared.  Everyone was delirious.  The good guys were about to ascend the mountain again.

Alas, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, and the Detroit Pistons had other plans.  Though the teams had tied with 59 wins Detroit had the tiebreaker and opened the series at home, winning Game 1.  The Blazers managed an overtime victory in Game 2 in a contest that saw center Bill Laimbeer hit an insane number of three-pointers but the Blazers stay tight with free throws.  Portland had the homecourt advantage and supposedly momentum.  That momentum fell apart completely with a 15-point drubbing in Portland in Game 3 followed by a narrow Game 4 loss in which reserve guard Danny Young's tying two-thirds-court heave at the final buzzer was (correctly) disallowed by referee Earl Strom as coming a hair too late.  By a quarter-second the Blazers lost their only chance to regain the series.  Detroit's toughness and rebounding proved too much in a 92-90 loss in Game 5.  Shockingly the Blazers, always homecourt heroes, had lost all three home games in the series.  The dream 1989-90 season came to an end in somber fashion.

The somberness did not last long, however.  In the true Portland spirit Blazer fans showed up by the thousands for a post-season rally in the Pioneer Square downtown, a rally in which nothing but cheers and promises to claim the prize next year were heard.  It was a bright time for the team and its fans.  And, incredibly, times were about to get even brighter.

It was a great time, wasn't it?  Share your memories of the '89-'90 season below!

--Dave (