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Hammer Time: Meyers Leonard’s Legendary Game 4

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A big playoffs run casts Portland’s center in a new light.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Meyers Leonard chant started high in the nosebleeds, as these things tend to, before swelling in volume as it spread from the cheap seats to every corner of the Moda Center. 20,000 fans rose to their feet, and a single name thundered through the arena.

It was Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, and the fans screamed for Meyers. It didn’t matter that the Trail Blazers faced elimination down 3-0 to the Warriors. It didn’t matter that Golden State went on to win the game and sweep the series — the third time the Blazers have been swept from the postseason in as many years. It didn’t even matter that the matchup resurfaced several old concerns about this roster and its ceiling.

In that moment, as the entire crowd chanted and cheered his name, all that mattered was Meyers. The oft-maligned seven-footer from Robinson, Illinois, stepped onto basketball’s biggest stage and played the best half of his life. He hit five three-pointers, and finished 10-12 from the field en route to 25 first-half points. Before that night, he hadn’t cracked 20 points over a full game since 2015. His final basket — a step-back three off the dribble over Kevon Looney — pushed the Blazers’ lead to 12 and kick-started the ovation.

I attended Game 4, and even though it came in a loss, I’ll be thinking about the Meyers Game for the rest of my life. While strange to say of a towering Adonis who’s a year older than me and has already reached a level of success I can only dream of, I felt proud of Meyers. After watching him struggle and persist for seven years in a Blazers jersey, witnessing him triumph when it mattered most delivered real catharsis. When he stepped to the line in the fourth and the crowd broke into an “M-V-P” chant, I couldn’t help but sit back and marvel at the moment.

Hours before, I asked Coach Stotts to speak on Meyers’ play in Game 3. Stotts had reinserted him into the lineup and he’d performed well, scoring 16 points on 6-12 shooting. I didn’t want the performance lost to the annals of history amidst a sweep without Stotts publicly commenting on it.

“He’s had his ups and downs throughout his career,” said Stotts. “He’s been the target for a lot of people, and he’s held up pretty well. He’s stayed confident. He’s been a great teammate, great person. For him to have a breakout game on this stage was pretty special.”

I assumed that Meyers wouldn’t have a better performance than Game 3. In no reality did I anticipate that he’d come out scorched-Earth to start Game 4, matching Stephen Curry in first-half points and threes, and prompting Twitter jokes about the two-time MVP taking shots from Meyers range.

How did we get here, playing in the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years, against the defending champions, and the crowd chanting “M-V-P” for Meyers Leonard?

I thought back to when the Blazers drafted him with the eleventh pick seven years ago. Over that time, he’s worn many labels in the eyes of Portland fans: a tantalizing prospect, an overmatched rookie, a bust, a suddenly knock-down shooter, “Myles”, an overpaid benchwarmer, the Big Hammer, a renowned hard worker, an enthusiastic teammate, a big who shoots too many 3s, my mom and girlfriend’s favorite player, and many, many more. One label I never I thought I’d hear? MVP.

I thought back to the confused center whose home crowd booed him on multiple occasions. I recalled laughing at my friend’s punishment for finishing last in Fantasy Basketball — loser had to buy a shirt from the Meyers Leonard clothing line.

I thought back to the gangly 19-year-old from Illinois who’d only started playing basketball a few years prior, but decided to enter the NBA draft after his freshman year of college anyways — not because he felt ready to compete against the best players in the world, but because he needed to provide for a family that didn’t have any years to spare for his development.

I thought about the little brother who went viral after breaking down in tears when his older brother returned from a tour overseas to surprise him at basketball practice.

I thought about a profile from Kerry Eggers published nine days prior where the newly-confident big man opened up about the effects the fans’ negativity had taken on his mental well-being.

“I was dealing with levels of depression and anxiety,” he said. “This is something people don’t know. It was hard. Some days, I didn’t want to get out of bed. [My wife Elle] and I didn’t want to go in public for fear of what people thought about me. It affected our relationship. I was at a really rough point of my life.”

Most of all, I thought about a moment two years ago. The Blazers faced an almost identical situation, down 3-0 to the Warriors and desperate to avoid the sweep. As the game turned into a Warriors rout, Stotts pulled the starters early in the fourth, and Leonard subbed into a game that was already lost. He played ten forgettable minutes and took two threes. He missed them both. A group of frustrated fans started a “Please Trade Meyers” chant. Several others took up the call. It was the last thing Leonard heard as he walked off the court. As team leader, Lillard felt the need to address the incident in his exit interview.

“With Meyers, there comes a time when you just have to take it personal,” said Lillard. “You just gotta take it as a challenge.”

Two years later, against those same Warriors, in front of a sold-out crowd, Meyers answered. Rather than silence his critics, he encouraged them to yell louder, transforming their pleas for a trade into delirious cries of support. It’s a testament to Meyers’ incredible journey and growth as a basketball player that the same people calling for his job were now calling him MVP. It also serves as a perfect illustration of the complicated relationship between the confounding big man and the Portland fans. It combines a mixture of hope, affection, derision, sympathy, pride and humor — all the key ingredients to the Meyers Leonard experience.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the unlikelihood that Meyers even had the chance to impact Game 4. For the first half of the season, he struggled to crack the rotation and see the floor. Jusuf Nurkic had entrenched himself as the starter, and Zach Collins had clearly supplanted Leonard as the Blazers backup big. The midseason acquisition of Enes Kanter hammered down the final nail in the coffin, pushing Meyers to the end of the bench and fourth in the depth chart. He received a DNP-CD in 26 games.

Even with Nurkic out and Kanter playing through a dislocated shoulder, Leonard rarely received meaningful minutes in the postseason. He didn’t see the court in over half the games against Denver. The Western Conference Finals looked to be more of the same when Stotts benched him and went with Kanter and Collins in Game 1. Then Curry torched the Blazers’ conservative pick-and-roll coverage, routinely stepping into open threes as Kanter dropped back into the paint, and it became clear that “Can play Kanter” had given way to “Can’t play Kanter.” The Blazers were running out of viable big men to throw at the wall. Outside of Skal Labissiere, Meyers was the last option to potentially stick.

What does any of this mean moving forward? Hard to say given the amount of big men questions the Blazers are juggling this offseason. Before Nurkic went down, I would have confidently predicted that Leonard would not be on the team past the 2019-2020 season. I would have guessed that Neil Olshey would move his expiring contract at next year’s trade deadline to some team looking to free up cap room.

But now that Nurkic most likely won’t return before January? Things become less clear. If the Blazers decide to let Kanter walk, then Meyers’ value to the team skyrockets. If the Blazers don’t add another center this summer, Collins would be the de facto starter in Nurk’s stead, and Meyers would be first big off the bench. Given Zach’s propensity for early foul trouble, Leonard could become essential to the Blazers surviving in a suddenly wide-open Western Conference race until Nurkic’s return.

Looking past this year, Meyers could still be a valuable player worth offering another contract. His shooting loosened Golden State’s pressure on Lillard on McCollum far more effectively than Evan Turner’s downhill playmaking. Teams have to respect his deep ball, and he has proven that he can hit them when it matters. In a league that values three-point shots more with each passing year, that skill in a seven-foot package will always be an asset.

With an opportunity for more minutes, a year of good health, and a confidence boost from this Western Conference Finals, we could see an even better Leonard season than his breakout one in 2015 — the year he earned his current $41 million contract. And wouldn’t you know it? Just in time for a new one. Four more years!

In the past, I’ve gleefully anticipated the day when the Blazers no longer had to concern themselves with Meyers and his laughably large cap hold, but that feeling has faded with time. Rarely in this era of player movement and shorter contracts does a fanbase get so many years with one player, especially when that player is not a franchise-level talent (to illustrate this dynamic, Leonard and Lillard are tied for the longest-tenured Blazers). Seven years with Meyers has created an almost familial-like relationship. I cherish the highs, lament the lows, and try to accept the player underneath it all. I hope he’s a Blazer for life.

No player has made me reconsider what it means to be a fan more than Meyers, because no player has better demonstrated the power we as fans possess. NBA players are human. They see and hear what’s written and said about them, and many of them take it to heart, as evidenced by Adam Silver’s recent focus on the mental health of players and ensuing discussion around the league.

I’ll never forget Game 4 and Leonard’s 25-point first half. For one night, Meyers and the Portland fans were in perfect sync, each pushing the other to new, feverish heights. He fed off the crowd’s energy, flexing and dunking on the Warriors, and the fans increasingly lost their minds, raising the intensity with every three-pointer until MVP chants rained down on him from the Moda Center rafters.

After seven roller-coaster years, did Meyers Leonard truly become a legend in one night, or did it just take us that long to see that he always was one?