As the 2017-18 NBA season winds down, the Portland Trail Blazers are in the thick of the brutal Western Conference playoff race. With only 16 games left, it looks likely that the team is headed to the postseason, even if we likely won’t know who they’ll be facing until the last week (or day) of the season.
While the Blazers have been in the playoffs each of the last four years, the last two seasons in particular felt like, and were, early exits. That’s not necessarily the case this year. If the Blazers finish relatively strong, they’ll have a chance to avoid the clear conference powerhouses and play an evenly-matched series; maybe even advancing into May.
The playoffs make many of our lifelong Blazers memories. Even if this team hasn’t won a title in more than 40 years or even made it to an NBA Finals in 26, I have a long list of playoff memories as a Blazer fan. Here are my favorites:
1990 Western Conference Semi-Finals - Kevin Duckworth Returns
I loved Kevin Duckworth when I was a kid. A lot. I knew that he wasn’t as good as David Robinson, or Patrick Ewing, or even Brad Daugherty, but he was ours. He was the first player I ever met, when I was nine years old, and was very patient with me while I worked up the courage to speak to him and instead just handed him my blue autograph book.
This series went down when I was almost 12 and I still loved Duck. Naturally, I was incredibly disappointed when he went down with a broken hand in the deciding game of the previous series and didn’t make an appearance through the first six games against the Spurs. But then, to everyone’s surprise, he came walking out of the tunnel for game seven.
I was watching on the old Blazers playoff pay-per-view system that they used to have but that ovation was so loud, it was like I was there in the arena.
1999 Western Conference Semi-Finals - Brian Grant vs. Karl Malone
You’ll hear a lot of people saying that the NBA was better when it was more physical. While I tend to like the modern game more, there’s no denying how amazing this series was. The Blazers finished ahead of Utah in the standings with a 35-15 record in this lockout shortened year, but Karl Malone was the league MVP.
From the get-go, Blazer power forward Brian Grant refused to back down from Malone, banging with him time and time again. Grant took multiple cheap-shots from Malone, including an elbow to the head that required stitches and a separate elbow to the face that set Malone back $10,000. Just look at this:
The Blazers ended up winning this series 4-2, and Brian Grant was a Blazer legend from this point on.
2011 Western Conference First Round - Brandon Roy Won’t Go without a Fight
Brandon Roy’s 2010-11 season was a Greek tragedy placed in a basketball setting. After having yet another knee surgery, Roy was not nearly the player he once was - playing in only 47 games and starting less than half of them. He averaged only 12 points per game, couldn’t get back on defense, and was clearly frustrated.
By the time the Blazers found themselves in a first round playoff battle with the Dallas Mavericks, Roy found himself as the last Blazer playing meaningful minutes off the bench; something that hurt him deeply.
But just three days after expressing frustration with his new role, Roy gave us one last heroic effort. Once again putting the Blazers on his back, Roy led the team from down 23 points at the end of the third quarter. Doing it all offensively, he helped the Blazers tie the series and stave off a 3-1 deficit. Roy was in a zone that few players ever attain and, for at least one magical night, he was back.
But like in all great tragedies, Roy’s heroism came in the face of futility. What made it magical for fans is that we all knew the truth, but, for just one night, we had our guy back. Roy would play just two more games in Portland’s uniform.
2015 Western Conference First Round - McCollum and Leonard Bust Out
The 2014-15 season started with so much promise, all of which went up in smoke the instant Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles tendon. With backup Arron Afflalo also dealing with a shoulder injury, the Blazers were in dire straits headed into their match up with the physical Memphis Grizzlies. Very few fans expected the Blazers to have a chance in this series, and they were right.
But, as bad as it felt being overmatched, there were a couple bright spots. CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard, then a couple of youngsters on the bench, broke out in a major way. McCollum, averaging six points a game in 15 minutes for the season, erupted for 26, 18, and 33 points in the final three games of the series. Leonard, meanwhile, averaged eight points and six boards in the series, pulling Marc Gasol out of the lane by shooting 10-13 from beyond the arc.
Despite the rough finish to the season, fan hopes were flying high for Leonard and McCollum. CJ came out like gangbusters the next season, winning the league’s Most Improved Player award. Leonard had a decent season, but has yet to build on the flashes that he has shown - starting in that series loss.
2014 Western Conference First Round - Joel Freeland’s Verticality
Dude, I’m kidding.
What’s your greatest Blazers playoff memory? Let us know in the comments!