It’s not hyperbole to say that the 2016-17 Portland Trail Blazers took fans on a roller coaster ride. The season went from the extreme low of losing early season games to the Phoenix Suns Suns and New York Knicks, to the high of a Jusuf Nurkic-sparked playoff run, and then crashed back down to earth with a decisive sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
Today, Blazer’s Edge is going to focus on the peaks of the roller coaster ride. Here are the top five moments of the season:
5. Noah Vonleh buzzer beater
Few of the Blazers role players met preseason expectations this year. Meyers Leonard did not make the leap to starting center, Ed Davis regressed significantly, and Allen Crabbe did nothing to assert himself. Noah Vonleh, however, is the exception to that trend. After spending much of last season as a default “we got nobody else” starter, Vonleh actually blossomed into the role in the latter stages of this season.
His season peaked in March with averages of 6.0 points and 7.0 rebounds on 54.3 percent shooting. The counting stats were not gaudy, but Vonleh’s energy on defense and on the boards was a major boost for a Portland team that struggled to find reliable big men all season. Throw in a burgeoning offensive game and fans found themselves seriously considering that Vonleh could earn a starting role next year, rather than be handed one by default.
The highlight of Vonleh’s season came on game 81 when he collected a double double (12 points, 11 rebounds) and hit one of the wildest and most unlikely buzzer beaters the Moda Center has ever seen to upset the San Antonio Spurs.
4. Dame/Terry Player/Coach of the Month
The Blazers have had two constants since the Roy/Oden era unceremoniously came to a crushing end: Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard. The coach and his point guard have helped led the team to several unexpectedly successful seasons, and also helped the franchise persevere through two painful transitions (we still miss you, Wes).
Appropriately, in March Stotts and Lillard became the first Blazer duo ever to win Coach of the Month and Player of the Month, respectively, in the same month.
Stotts earned the accolades for seamlessly integrating the Nurkic into the Blazers’ lineup and leading the team to a league best 13-3 record in March. From the NBA’s press release announcing his award:
The Trail Blazers closed the month on a five-game winning streak, highlighted by a 117-107 home victory over the West’s third-place team, the Houston Rockets, on March 30. Stotts’ team led the NBA in three-point field goal percentage (41.7) and ranked third in field goal percentage (48.7) and fourth in scoring (111.3 ppg).
Lillard also dominated the NBA in March:
Lillard ranked third in the NBA in scoring (29.1 ppg) and tied for fourth in three-pointers made (55) to go with 6.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.44 steals in 16 games. The 26-year-old guard shot 48.3 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from three-point range and 87.7 percent from the free throw line. Lillard posted eight games with at least 30 points...
3. Nurkic Overwhelms His Former Team
It’d be impossible to compile a “best moments” list of the Blazers’ season without highlighting Jusuf Nurkic. The Bosnian Beast’s arrival heralded an almost impossibly dramatic transformation of the season. With their new starting center, the Blazers went 14-6 and jumped from a playoff dark horse to nearly locking up the No. 8 seed. Nurkic’s 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.9 blocks played no small part in the turnaround.
Nurkic had several huge games for Portland, but the most memorable was a 33 point, 15 rebound, 2 block domination of his former team, the Denver Nuggets, on March 28. The win gave the Blazers the season tiebreaker and lead in the standings over Denver, all but securing a playoff berth. In the post-game interview, Nurkic reminded the Nuggets that they had made a major mistake in trading him:
2. Blazers Beat Rockets
Two days after Nurkic’s huge game against his former team, the entire Blazer team took their play up to a higher level. Going into the nationally televised game, the Houston Rockets had the third best record in the NBA and looked like one of the best teams in the league. But the Blazers simply outplayed them:
The Houston Rockets...hold the third best record in the NBA and the top offense in the league, all while rarely shooting in the midrange.
But tonight the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Rockets at their own game. Portland matched or outclassed Houston in every measure of offensive efficiency and racked up an impressive 117 points to the Rockets’ 107.
The superstar battle between Damian Lillard and James Harden mirrored the team results. Lillard finished with 31 points on 18 shots and added 11 assists, while Harden shot only 11-for-30 (36.7 percent) and had a season low 4 assists.
The Denver game got more attention at the time, but this game stood out because it was the first time since March 5, 2015 that the Blazers looked truly impressive. They have had some major wins over the last two years (e.g. Cleveland and Golden State), but those wins usually relied on otherworldy peformances and did not feel sustainable.
In contrast, the way that Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless shut down Harden and the ease with which the Blazers offense scored despite not putting up too-good-to-be-true stats suggested a truly dangerous team.
Nurkic would miss the rest of the regular season after this game, putting a halt to the Blazers’ run, but fans looking for signs of a bright future can hang their hat on the March 30 game against the Rockets.
1. Lillard Scores 59 points!!!
The Blazers have been around for nearly 50 years and no player has ever scored more points in a single game than Lillard did on April 8 against the Utah Jazz. Here’s an excerpt from our game analysis to capture the historic moment:
Amazingly, Lillard outscored the Jazz singlehandedly in the first and third periods combined, 45-38. All told, he also outscored his teammates 59-42 – none of the other Blazers even reached double figures until mid-way through the fourth quarter...
Dame is no stranger to 50-point games; this was the third of his career. But Lillard’s previous career nights were largely symbolic. He achieved the gaudy numbers by either running up the score in an already decided game (vs. Golden State) or making a furious comeback in a game that had already been lost (vs. Toronto).
In contrast, there was nothing symbolic tonight. He singlehandedly led the Blazers to victory from wire-to-wire against a team that had thoroughly outclassed them only a few days ago. Outscoring your teammates by 17 is no joke, and scoring 45 points through three quarters to your opponent’s 60 is downright Chamberlain-esque. Add in the fact that this game moved the Blazers within inches of a fourth consecutive playoff berth, and it becomes one of the great regular season performances in team history.
A couple other moments stood out, but didn’t quite make the top 5 cut:
Nurkic’s 28 point, 20 rebound, 8 assist, 6 block masterpiece against the 76ers (on Blazer’s Edge night no less!), with another classic postgame interview.
Lillard’s 49-point explosion against the Heat - you know you had a pretty solid season when 49 points is a clear second best game of the year:
What’s your favorite moment of the 2016-17 season?
This poll is closed
Vonleh’s buzzer beater
Stotts/Lillard win March awards
Nurkic dominates Denver
Blazers outplay Rockets
Nurkic explodes on Blazer’s Edge night
Lillard’s 49 leads Blazers past Heat
Other (Let us know in the comments!)
Eric Griffith | @EricG_NBA