When you take a moment to reflect on where the Trail Blazers stand right now, leading a first-round playoff series 3-2 and preparing to take the Moda Center floor tonight with a chance to finish off the L.A. Clippers, it's all a little hard to believe. This is the 2015-16 Blazers! This is the team that Vegas picked to win 26.5 games; the team that just about everyone wrote off as a long-term rebuilding project. Now look - the long term is now. The Blazers are here.
What's really amazing is how quickly this all happened. Just think. On Jan. 8, the Blazers were nine games under .500. They had just gotten demolished by the Warriors (more on them later), at home, to fall to 15-24. They were alive in the playoff race, but only because the middle of the conference was enduring a down year. On paper, the team looked bad. Since that Jan. 8 loss, the Blazers have rallied, finishing the season 29-14 and then beating the Clips three times in five tries. Over the last 14 weeks, Portland has been one of the best teams in the NBA.
Back in January, I was engaging daily in Twitter arguments with Blazer fans about the relative merits of fighting for a Western Conference playoff spot versus dodging the postseason and saving a draft pick. Remember when this was a thing? Way back then, when the team was on the fringes of the 10th or 11th spot in the conference and it looked like they'd actually have to fight for a playoff spot, it was debatable whether the fight was worth it. The Blazers at the time still looked very much like a young team in need of more talent to develop, and given that their first-round pick was promised to Denver if they fell outside the lottery, the Blazers looked like prime candidates for a tank job.
The majority of people insisted that punting on this season and keeping the pick was the way to go. This opinion was reasonable. After all, the Blazers at the time looked barely good enough to compete for the No. 8 seed in the West, if even that, so it appeared that the "best"-case scenario was sneaking into the playoffs only to get pummeled by the historically dominant Golden State. This made sense.
The counterargument to this was ... "Well, you never know."
A lot of Portlanders went into this debate with the assumption that lower-seeded playoff teams are always doomed to fail. The idea was that they never win, since the higher seeds are so much better (especially in a crazy-top-heavy Western Conference), and they often don't even learn many tangible lessons from the experience, because what's to be learned from a quick gentleman's sweep, anyway? This assumption was valid to a certain extent, but it was also narrow-minded. Crazy things happen in the playoffs sometimes. The Mavericks won 67 games in 2006-07 and still got knocked out in the first round by the "We Believe" Warriors. The Spurs won 61 in 2010-11 and got bumped by the "Grit & Grind" Grizzlies. Upsets are rare, but they're not unheard of, and when they do happen, they can be catalyzing events in a franchise's history. Just look at the success Memphis has had since that crazy Spurs series six years ago. That was their turning point.
It remains to be seen whether the events of these last few months will have a long-term impact for the Trail Blazers. They might ride this current wave of good fortune all the way to a seat at the table with the NBA's elites over the next few years; they might fall back into mediocrity next year. A lot is still unknown. But I think at this point, it's safe to say that reaching the playoffs and competing has been a positive experience for these Blazers. This group is getting necessary reps. Key role players like Mason Plumlee (163 career playoff minutes to his name before this spring), Ed Davis (73) and Allen Crabbe (39) are gaining experience. Whether that's more important than a first-round pick is tough to say, but it's certainly important on some level.
We now know that the Blazers this postseason are doing a lot more than just competing. Part of that is due to health issues on the other side, obviously, but it would be disingenuous to say injury luck is the only reason the Blazers are here. They effectively knotted up this series 2-2 without any help; it wasn't because of any injury that the Blazers got a combined 59 points from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and overpowered the Clippers in Game 3, and it wasn't until midway through the third quarter of Game 4, with the Blazers already up 58-52, that Chris Paul bowed out. Portland had led that game basically from wire to wire, fair and square.
Even with Paul and Blake Griffin still relatively healthy, the Blazers had a legitimate chance to win this series straight up. Late Monday night, this series appeared headed for a 2-2 deadlock, with the Blazers having seized momentum and the Clippers starting to tighten up. Even before everything crumbled for L.A., this was a real series. Win or lose, it was a chance for the Blazers to experience a highly competitive playoff matchup. Postseason basketball is the next level, especially when a superstar-laden opponent is involved, and Portland had reached it. When you talk about making the playoffs and gaining meaningful experience, this was exactly what you talk about. Now, of course, we're talking about something completely different. The Blazers are poised to advance to the second round and take on the winningest team in NBA history.
The common refrain you hear in this type of situation is "not like this." Yes, as a Blazer fan, you want to see your team topple the big, bad Clippers and advance to the next round of the playoffs against all odds, but not like this! No one wants to win solely because of injuries. It's far more satisfying to engage in a fair fight, your best guys against their best, and slug it out for seven games and win. That's what playoff basketball is supposed to be.
I hear that. But at the same time - "this" is par for the course! "This" is what happens all the time in sports. Random things occur at random times for random reasons. Some events are mildly coincidental; others are astronomically unlikely. This series might be closer to the latter than the former. I mean, what are the odds of seeing not just one key injury, but two, one after the other, within minutes, strike the Clippers' two best players? They must be nigh-impossibly small. But it happened, and it wasn't the first crazy plot twist we've ever seen in a playoff series, and it won't be the last. And in a way, we're all better off for that. Not that anyone should ever root for injury to befall anyone, but when events like this happen, they add to the unpredictability and the drama of sports. The playoffs wouldn't be worth watching if the expected always happened and the higher seed always won. The crazy twists and turns are what keep us engaged. They're also the reason that fighting to make the postseason, even when you start the season 15-24 and your team appears headed for a long rebuild, is worthwhile. All you need to do is make the tournament. Once you're there, anything can - and will, and just did - happen.
I don't claim to know what the events of this spring mean for the Blazers long-term. How does 2016 affect the three-year or five-year plan? It's really tough to say. It's possible that very little has changed at all. When you're building a team with the intention of being competitive later on, once your star players hit their primes, one could argue that a brief early postseason blip means next to nothing. After all, Lillard is turning 26 this summer, and McCollum 25. Being dominant right now isn't part of the plan. The Blazers can go on a deep run this May and threaten the Warriors next round, or they can flame out - when your real goals extend far beyond May 2016, what's ultimately the difference?
If you want to be optimistic, though, there's a chance that this year's success helps the team long-term even if it puts them in a weaker draft position. Part of that is the playoff reps - seeing the Plumlees and Crabbes of the world get a few games of postseason experience is valuable, and it will make them stronger for next time. Another part is it helps enhance the reputation of the Blazers' franchise. With any luck, they'll start this summer viewed as a real threat in the West, a team to be taken seriously. Considering that the Blazers are one or two key free agents away from being a perennial playoff team, a better reputation may well help. Simply by eking into the playoffs last year, the Celtics were able to put together a sales pitch for Amir Johnson; the Bucks did the same for Greg Monroe. Can the Blazers do the same? What's happening now can only help.
The great irony of this surprising postseason run is that, months ago, when so many Portland fans argued against fighting for a playoff spot, their reasoning was "Why bother when we'll just get squashed by the Warriors?" and now, indeed, there's a good chance of that happening after all. Instead of a 1-8 matchup, though, the Blazers now have a chance to meet Golden State in the West semis as a No. 5. And the squashing might not come as swiftly as we originally thought - that of course depends on the status of Stephen Curry's sprained MCL.
Anyway, those chickens are still hatching, so we'd best not count them. The point is this - it's late April and the Blazers' season is still alive and well. That's a sentence that no one expected to write in 2016, and here I am writing it. Simply having basketball in Portland this time of year, regardless of its ultimate meaning or value or what have you, is a gift. The Blazers are already guaranteed at least one game in the month of May, and if they win tonight, they'll play several more. For a team that was so roundly dismissed in October, that's quite something. Let's savor it.