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Resetting as the Trail Blazers Enter the Western Conference Finals

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Blazers-Warriors tips tomorrow. Here’s where the Blazers are, things they might experience, and what it could mean.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers will face the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. They made that status official yesterday with a 100-96 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of an ultra-competitive second round. This is uncharted territory for post-millennial Blazers fans, so let’s take a look at some of the implications of traveling in such rarefied air.

Where They Are

Portland’s Conference Finals appearance is worth celebrating. It’s been two decades since the team has gotten that far. For some franchises it might be humdrum; for Portland it’s a once-in-a-generation event.

The celebration should be doubled by the intensity the Blazers had to display to get to this point. The series against the Oklahoma City Thunder was hot, but just a prelude to the battle with the Nuggets. You could replay the last seven games a hundred times and come out with a 50-50 split. Portland winning that kind of series is special.

You could easily double the joy again considering Portland’s starting center—and best hope to match star pivot Nikola Jokic—is spending the 2019 post-season in street clothes after fracturing his leg on March 25th. Not even the Blazers themselves could have predicted this outcome after Jusuf Nurkic went down.

At this point the Portland Trail Blazers have a non-zero chance of getting to the NBA Finals and winning the NBA Finals. That’s more than could be said for them at the start of the season, or at any time since the 2000 NBA Playoffs. It’s well worth recognizing.

What They’re Getting Into

In the NBA universe, making the Conference Finals is the equivalent of the planet Jupiter to our solar system. It’s the biggest thing a team can do that’s analogous to the norm. If the regular season is just hanging around on Earth, this is WAY bigger.

By comparison, making the NBA Finals is like the sun. It’s not just another, bigger planet...this is what it all revolves around.

Actually winning the NBA Finals is like a supernova. It changes the franchise’s universe for years, in some ways forever.

Jupiter is a lot bigger than the Blazers were supposed to get this year, especially after the injuries. Jupiter is also as far away from being the sun as the Earth is from being Jupiter.

Portland passing through the first two rounds may have been considered unlikely, but it was always in the realm of possibility. Most would term Portland’s side of the bracket the easier one, as the Warriors and Houston Rockets were both on the opposite end. Somebody was going to emerge from this side, and it’s to Portland’s credit that they did it. At the same time, they’re about to go head-to-head with not only the survivor of the other battle, but a team that’s already gone supernova multiple times.

Quantifying the importance of championship experience is near impossible. You know it when you see it. The closest the Blazers have come since 1977 was with the Clyde Drexler teams. They got baptized in the 1990 NBA Finals, their first of three seasons as a dominant team in the West. During that span the Phoenix Suns (Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers), San Antonio Spurs (David Robinson and friends), and Utah Jazz (early John Stockton and Karl Malone) were also good teams. On paper, they were every bit as intimidating as Portland. Somehow, the Blazers always found the extra whatever to pull through. Battle scars and success combine to the point where you just know you’re going to take the team across from you, no matter how good they think they are.

Teams have to find that whatever somewhere. Nobody earns it without a first time. Meanwhile the Warriors already have that whatever.

Coming into this series with what they’ve brought isn’t going to be enough for Portland to win it, or to overcome Golden State’s big-game, big-moment edge. The Blazers will have to take it to a whole new level, demonstrating execution and resolve we haven’t yet seen, if they’re going to succeed. Nothing so far will have prepared them completely, not even their prior series against Golden State. They’ll need to learn fast and succeed as they go.

What Comes Next

Obviously the Blazers and their fans hope this series culminates in an NBA Finals appearance. The Warriors are vulnerable in a couple different ways, the most obvious of which is the health of Kevin Durant. If Durant can’t play, or can’t play well, the matchup looks far more even than forecast.

Here’s the good news: nobody remembers the injuries, opponents, or bracket conditions under which a team takes a championship. Ultimately, winning it is all that matters. It’s the single, inarguable award that nobody can take away from you, ever. That’s part of what makes it so valuable. If the Blazers keep winning, they will be NBA Champions, period. No further explanations needed.

The corresponding bad news: nobody remembers why you finished second, either. Injuries, referees, close calls...these might as well be forlorn fishing stories told by the campfire. Ten years on, people have trouble identifying losers of the NBA Finals, let alone remembering who was in the Conference Finals and what circumstances caused them to bow out.

Victories are the only currency that spends in the playoffs. Try to argue that or compensate in any other manner and you’ve already lost.

Celebrating Portland’s entrance into the Conference Finals isn’t inappropriate, especially considering their situation and expectations. In the big picture—and keep in mind they’re playing in Big Boy Land for real stakes now—it’s also premature. They’ve done something wonderful. They haven’t done the thing they came to do, nor the thing that will make them great.

Conference Finals appearances alone do not re-write franchise narratives. Portland appeared the Conference Finals in 1999 and 2000. Those series preceded one of the darkest periods in franchise history. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, and Memphis Grizzlies have all participated in the Conference Finals in the last half-dozen years. OKC and Indiana are doing well enough still, but all those teams have undergone major changes since and none of them are knocking down the door of greatness.

If the Blazers win this series, the results will be immediate and striking. The Conference Finals run may have a couple long-term effects even if they lose, but they’re speculative and ancillary.

  • If new Blazers owner Jody Allen hadn’t caught the NBA bug before, a post-season like this might do it. At last report, the Blazers weren’t announcing any plans to sell. Perhaps the rush of 2019 might extend that sentiment might a year or two. We have no idea. Only Jody Allen can answer that question.
  • Increased national profile might peg Portland as a more attractive trade or free agency destination. They’ve shown potential and a commitment to teamwork, sharing shots and important moments among multiple players even when the stakes were high. Talent and money haven’t been recruiting issues for the Blazers as much as inability to distinguish themselves from your garden-variety Charlotte Hornets or Memphis Grizzlies franchises. Players looking to recuperate their careers can now look at Rodney Hood, Enes Kanter, and Seth Curry, asking whether they might be the next through that gateway.
  • As a side note, the Blazers just became the team the entire nation (outside of the Bay Area and a few front-runners) wants to see win this series. Rejoice, Portland fans. Your Trail Blazers are NBA darlings. A devastating sweep would take them off that throne, making popular support look foolish. If the Blazers can put up any kind of decent showing, the plucky underdog versus Evil Empire story will serve them well. They should ride it for all it’s worth in any venue in which it will sell.

Conclusion

New York Times Best-Selling Author Mick Foley described his career in the WWE as being one step below the top guys. He wasn’t The Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin, he was the guy who made The Rock, Austin, and others who faced them look good on their way to the top.

That’s where the Blazers are right now...one level below the top. This team has achieved enough to be remembered as good by fans, maybe even to be a darling of some. They’ve certainly been through enough “Undertaker threw him off the cell/As God is my witness, he is broken in half!” moments to merit empathy and praise. For all that, they’re still destined to be lovable losers on the grand NBA scale unless they change that narrative in situations like this.

Mankind did end up winning the title after all his bumps and bruises. Maybe it’s possible for Portland too. If you don’t like wrestling, look at the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team. Those stories do happen.

If the Blazers can take the next step, they have to seize the moment and they have to do it now. As we said at the start, these opportunities don’t come around often.

Nobody’s going to give this to Portland, though...not the refs, not media and analysts, and most of all not the Warriors. If the Blazers are capable, it’s time. If not, the success will still be worth celebrating; it’ll just have less significance. Either way, Blazers-Warriors should be worth watching, and Portland fans should enjoy the heck out of it.

Tomorrow: The keys to the matchup.

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