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Real Talk about the Trail Blazers’ Hopes for an NBA Title

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Is it possible for a team to be both underrated and overrated?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers have posted an amazing run of victories since the All-Star break, skating past opponents left and right before stumbling to the Houston Rockets on Tuesday. As victories mounted, so did national attention. Damian Lillard is now a candidate for Most Valuable Player. Portland has earned official “dark horse” status in many books. Pundits both national and local have debated the exact questions posed in this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

Are the Blazers for real? What is our ceiling? Everybody is asking that — even Simmons got in on it. He called us a championship contender. I haven’t heard from you in all the articles though and you’re the one I want to hear from. How important was that Houston game and did it change your opinion of the team? Where do we stand? And please please please — could we really be contenders even a little bit?

I need this answered! I’m hanging on it! Thank you!

Barry

Let’s talk about the Rockets game specifically. No matter which way it went, it wasn’t going to mean as much as the popular lore was trying to make it. It was a fantastic game, one of the best regular-season events in years. There’s no denying that. But the lasting significance was always going to be minimal.

Head back with me to the glorious year of 1991. The Blazers had just come off their first NBA Finals appearance in the Clyde Drexler years. The 1990-91 season became an extended romp through the league, the obvious precursor to another deep playoffs run. The only shred of nagging doubt came from the one serious opponent Portland had not faced in the playoffs the year prior: Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. If anyone could trip up Clyde and company, it would be their old Showtime nemesis.

The 78th game of that season fell on April 13th, 1991. It featured a head-to-head battle with L.A., the last one before the post-season commenced. This was less of a tune-up than a statement. The Blazers stood at 59 wins. A victory over the Lakers would take them to a historic 60. Portland also carried a 12-game winning streak into the contest, including an overtime victory in Los Angeles. Both teams had messages to send to each other in this final matchup, and they were being delivered with all the force of colliding express trains.

I was at the game that night. I remember the fire-pillars during introductions, the raucous roar of the Memorial Coliseum crowd, the breathless excitement which permeated every possession. Most of all, I remember the Blazers bearing down on Magic, holding him to just a dozen points. The rest of the Lakers went crazy; James Worthy, Byron Scott, and Sam Perkins all topped 20. It didn’t matter. Portland walked away with the 118-113 victory and their 60th win of the season. Having lost to Portland twice in three weeks, the Lakers weren’t just defeated, they were vanquished. It was the statement to end all statements.

The Blazers would go on to extend their winning streak to 16 straight, losing the last game of the year because they gave their starters light minutes. With a franchise-record 63 wins and obvious regular-season superiority tucked into their belts, nothing...nothing was going to stop their return march to the NBA Finals. And this time they were going to take it.

Except, as we all know, the Blazers lost in the Western Conference Finals that year to...guess who? Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers, who had been summarily disposed of in the showcase game of the season, but came back to prove that premature coronations don’t mean diddly-squat.

Had the current Blazers won on Tuesday, they still would have trailed the Rockets in the West by an insurmountable margin. Had the score read 130-85 as Damian Lillard broke Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point scoring record, every bit of it would have been moot once the ball tipped in Game 1 of Portland’s first best-of-seven playoff series. A victory over Houston would have equaled one win in the record book, plus a little sauce. As it turned out, the result was one loss, light sauce. That’s the only real difference. If anybody’s going to think otherwise, let it be the Rockets. If they think that game decided the whole season, they’ve already lost.

As far as where the Blazers stand, they’re going to show that. The ultimate demonstration doesn’t come in late March, but mid-April and beyond.

That doesn’t mean all outcomes are equally likely, though. The looseness with which the word “championship” was thrown around by even non-Bill-Simmons people (absolutely anything can come from Bill) during the 13-game streak was mildly surprising.

Anything can happen in this crazy world of sports, but this generally holds true: if you think you might have a chance to win the NBA Championship, you are not going to win the NBA Championship. As we just cited, those ‘90-’91 Trail Blazers ran off a 16-game winning streak during which they beat 9 opponents on the road, including sweeping a 6-game road trip. 7 of their opponents were playoff-bound and 2 of them were literally the Lakers themselves. After all that, plus having just been in the Finals, plus topping 60 games, the Blazers KNEW FOR DAMN SURE they were going to take the title that year. “Might have a chance” was nowhere to be found. Even the amazing 16-game streak was celebrated more as a preliminary curiosity to the real show than a landmark achievement upon which to hang the entire franchise. And after all that, the Blazers still didn’t win the title.

Comparing that situation to anything the Blazers have done this year—even if they would have beaten Houston—is laughable. The current Blazers are good. They’re looking as good as they have since the height of the LaMarcus Aldridge era. That doesn’t mean they’re anywhere near the championship conversation. Paradoxically the need to prove worthiness by an in-season streak and a single, big game shows that the worthiness isn’t there yet.

Between the reality of Tuesday and the dreams of June lie your other questions.

Are the Blazers “for real”? Of course they’re for real! This isn’t fake. They actually won 13 games in a row and they’re going to exceed last year’s record by a significant margin. What people extrapolate from those facts may be imaginary, but the events themselves aren’t. I can’t stand it when people suggest otherwise.

I don’t believe in “ceilings”. As we said at the outset, the Blazers will determine their own fate. There’s no abstract, empirical line above them which they cannot cross. The NBA pits each team against all comers. Nothing’s going to prevent a given team from advancing besides themselves and/or their opponent.

If Golden State loses four starters to injury and Houston implodes before they meet the Blazers, then Portland’s ceiling suddenly looks like the Finals, right? If the Warriors and Rockets continue unabated, the second round looks like a more likely endpoint. Either way, Portland’s job is to bust through every possible barrier until they have to be dragged off the floor, kicking and screaming, no matter what round that ends up happening in. Ceilings don’t exist, just opponents and results.

Summing up, the Blazers are just as good as they’ve looked this season. Absent something unlikely happening, that’s not near good enough to win a championship, and the fact that we even have to ask that question shows that they’re probably not there. Everything other than that becomes extended guesswork...interesting, but neither binding nor defining. Guesswork can be comforting, especially when trends look positive, but the real goal for every team is not having to guess anymore because championship contention is written all over the season from start to finish.

Thanks for the question, Barry! You all can submit yours to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com