I haven’t had a stake in an NBA Conference Finals in 19 years.
Sure, I’ve rooted for and against a few teams over that time, but ultimately, the result didn’t matter. It was a battle between two teams I didn’t truly care about, a series I would dismiss as irrelevant within weeks. My rooting interests had long-since passed.
Sometimes the Blazers had been eliminated before the end of the season. Other times they reached the first round, and on rare occasions, a very short second round. Every year, I accepted that it was more about the journey than the actual result. And deep down, even as we rose with the Blazers, it always felt like, sooner or later, any success would eventually be torn asunder. After all, it’s the Blazers way! Get so close, then fall apart in spectacular fashion.
But actual Conference Finals appearances? Those are rare. 1977. 1990, 1991, and 1992. 1999 and 2000. That was it. Nearly every Blazer fan knows those seasons, and the key players on all of those teams. Now add another. Just by reaching the Conference Finals, this 2019 team immediately became a part of Blazers lore.
The 2019 Western Conference Finalists
As Dave Deckard noted earlier, history doesn’t remember your path to the Conference Finals, it just remembers that you got there. Sure, Houston suffered significant injuries to James Harden and Chris Paul, and it left them in the Warriors’ bracket. And Paul George, after looking like an MVP contender, never recovered from a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, the Blazers’ starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a devastating leg injury, followed by a separated shoulder for his replacement, Enes Kanter. Portland has gone 16-6 with two series victories since Nurkic’s injury. They found a way to survive where other teams might have wilted.
After their unsightly playoff exit one year ago, Damian Lillard and Terry Stotts were still well-regarded league-wide, but questions remained. Could Lillard actually lead his team deep into the playoffs? Was Stotts a coach who eked the most out of a team in the regular season, but not the playoffs? The moment that the final buzzer sounded in Denver, those questions vanished. They led a short-handed team past Oklahoma City in spectacular fashion, then by a mostly-healthy Nuggets squad that had just vanquished the Spurs.
A handful of great players have led teams to the Conference Finals, but not the Finals: Paul George. Derrick Rose. Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. Carmelo Anthony. Chris Paul. Chris Webber. Marc Gasol with the Grizzlies. Just by reaching this point, Damian Lillard joins some elite company.
The NBA’s Rare Cinderella Story
It’s a predictable league: Usually the teams that make the NBA Conference Finals are the ones you expect. It’s uncommon to have a relatively-unheralded team reach this rarefied air. But here we are.
It doesn’t matter what happened before, and it doesn’t matter what happens after. In four stunning weeks, everything came up roses in the Rose City. And the league’s Cinderellas, the Portland Trail Blazers, have earned a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
The series starts Tuesday. Until tip-off, there is plenty of reading material. Plenty of topics to debate in comments. Plenty of social media snark to digest.
But take a minute, stop, and enjoy this fleeting moment nineteen years in the making. Because they can be quite rare, and quite special.