Immediately following the Portland Trail Blazers 125-121 series clinching loss to the Golden State Warriors, TNT's David Aldridge remarked that the two teams had played one of the best five-game series in NBA playoff history.
Ordinarily, commenting that a team had done the best job ever at losing 4-1 would be seen as a backhanded compliment at best, and thinly veiled mockery at worst. But these were not ordinary circumstances - the 44-win Blazers, with their roster comprised mostly of castoffs and misfits, was expected to roll over easily when faced with the stiff competition of the 73-win Warriors.
Instead, the Blazers played competitively with the Warriors in four of five games, and led at halftime of games 2-5. Even more impressively, the Blazers held a lead 69.8 percent of the time (137.5 of 197 minutes) over the final four games of the series. The Warriors did ultimately overwhelm the Blazers down the stretch in three of those games, but staying in the series for as long as they did against a team with 29 more regular season wins has to be seen as a moral victory for the Portland players and their fans. Add in the context that pre-season expectations for the Blazers bottomed out at levels not seen since Zach Randolph played in the Rose Garden, and the second round playoff performance automatically made the season an overwhelming success.
For many longtime Blazers fans, this series held special significance because the team has so rarely experienced memorable postseason moments. Despite regularly making the playoffs through the franchise's history, Portland has infrequently seen any genuine playoff success. In recent years, fans have suffered through gentlemen's sweeps (i.e. falling behind 3-0, ultimately losing in five games) to the Grizzlies and Spurs in 2015 and 2014, respectively, and non-competitive series against the Rockets, Suns, and Mavericks during the Roy/Oden era.
Going even further back, the"Proto Jail Blazers" made conference finals runs in 1999 and 2000, but fans had difficulty connecting with those teams and have since tried to distance themselves from many of the players from that era. Before the conference finals appearance in 1999, one and done non-competitive first round series were the norm dating back to the 1992 Finals, hitting a nadir with a regrettable 102-64 loss to the Utah Jazz in 1996.
In short, Portland's playoff success over the last 24 years consists of "0.9" and two conference finals runs by teams openly detested by the fanbase. Every single other season the team either played at or below expectations.
Thus, watching this year's group of plucky underdogs continue to massively overachieve in the playoffs has been a rare treat for Blazers fans. Winning 44 games after prognosticators famously predicted a 12-14 seed felt like a fantasy, but actually winning a playoff series was straight out of a dream. Actually acting as a semi-competent foil to the 73-win Warriors, the very team most analysts had used as a reason to intentionally avoid the playoffs, was surreal. For a franchise with so much disappointment and heartbreak in its history, this season was truly special.
It helped that the Warriors series was also fun. Recent playoff series for the Nate McMillan coached Blazer teams were a chore to watch - full of 1-4 flat ISOs characteristic of that era, and the Spurs and Grizzlies series from the last two seasons felt like some of the most lopsided games in team history.
By contrast, the five games in the Warriors series were high-scoring, competitive, and full of exciting moments. The fast pace, ball/player movement heavy, and three-point driven high octane offense of both teams lends itself to entertaining games, and this series did not disappoint. Once the immediate pain numbs (in 10 or 15 years), even Steph Curry's 17-point overtime explosion will be something that many will be glad they witnessed live. In the end, it's rare that a team wins a championship, so having entertaining games along the way becomes an essential part of the experience.
Heading into next season there will be many questions. This year's playoff run has likely raised expectations for the teams, and it's unclear how the Damian Lillard and his teammates will respond once the "underdog" label has been removed. Part of the enjoyment of the Warriors series was also acknowledging the reailty of "just glad to be here!" and the perpetual exuberance at being semi-competitive. Once that wears off, criticisms of late-game struggles will become more prevalent.
But those concerns can wait - regardless of the outcome, the semi-finals series against the Warriors was the perfect cherry on top of the sundae that was the 2015-2016 campaign. For now Blazers fans and players can bask in the glory of this rare season that was both fun and successful.