Believe it or not, the Portland Trail Blazers were playing basketball two years ago today.
No, it wasn’t NBA Summer League or some meaningless expedition. Portland was playing serious, high-level basketball with postseason implications. Basketball that made Damian Lillard act like a man possessed.
On July 31, 2020, the Blazers played their first game of the bizarre NBA Bubble in Orlando, Florida. It was a mighty-entertaining 140-135 overtime win against the Memphis Grizzlies.
The 2019-2020 NBA Restart in Orlando was the league’s answer to the COVID-19 pandemic, coming four months after the season shutdown in March and at a time when no vaccine existed. But as the old adage goes, the show must go on and everybody likes money. So the Bubble — stationed at Walt Disney World — was born.
Kicking off in late July and concluding with a Los Angeles Lakers championship in October, the Bubble remains one of the strangest basketball atmospheres ever seen. Live fans weren’t allowed in, so they were featured on massive video boards. Crowd noise was pumped through stadium speakers. And players couldn’t leave the campus or have any physical contact with those in the outside world — even if they were just picking up their Uber Eats.
The Bubble allowed entry to 22 teams, consisting of 16 teams in playoff position and an additional six teams that were six games or fewer behind their conference’s eighth seed. Everybody and their mother’s shooting percentage skyrocketed because they weren’t dealing with depth perceptions in massive arenas and noisy away crowds. Along with the many changes, the NBA introduced an exciting play-in format before the playoffs for the first time.
After months of being deprived from any live sports content, the festivities were enthralling to watch, at least for this writer.
The Blazers entered Orlando with a 29-37 record — 3 1⁄2 games back of Memphis in the eighth seed — and multiple storylines. The Bubble debut saw the return of Blazers big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, who hadn’t appeared in an NBA game in 16 months and eight months respectively. The NBA appeased teams like Portland on the fringe of playoff contention by scheduling a possible play-in tournament between the eighth and ninth seed of each conference. And Lillard, who famously said he’d only go to Orlando if Portland had a shot at the playoffs, was hellbent on getting Portland there for the seventh consecutive season.
With the Blazers so far back of Memphis, it created a razor-thin margin of error and unique intensity for each of Portland’s eight “seeding games.” It all started with that first game against Memphis on July 31.
Former Blazer CJ McCollum led Portland with 33 points. Lillard, in just a teaser of wild performances to come, scored 29. And Gary Trent Jr. turned heads with four triples and 17 points off the bench, starting one of the hottest shooting stretches of his young career.
The title of “hero of the game” may have to go to Carmelo Anthony, who pitched in 21 points off the bench. Melo, in one of his brightest moments as a Blazer, knocked down two crucial three-pointers in the final 90 seconds of regulation to ensure Portland saw overtime.
The Blazers shot off to an 11-0 run in OT and fended off a Grizzlies comeback to survive with a victory.
Portland would go on to finish the seeding games with a 6-2 record, many of them playing out in similar, heart-pounding fashion. Lillard was named the unanimous Bubble MVP, averaging 37.6 points and 9.6 assists during the eight seeding games.
Portland won its final three must-win games by a combined margin of seven points and Lillard posted a mind-boggling scoring total of 154 points in those games alone. It was good enough to qualify the Blazers for the Play-In Tournament as the eighth seed, setting up a rematch with the young Grizzlies and rookie star Ja Morant.
Morant and the Grizzlies are contenders today, but at the time, Portland sent the young guns packing 126-122, completing Lillard’s playoff mission.
Ultimately, Portland’s blazing run in the Bubble ended anticlimactically in the first round of the playoffs. The Blazers fell to the Lakers, the eventual champions, in five games.
But Bubble Basketball still provided Blazers fans with thrilling games and some all-time great Damian Lillard performances.
Two years later, the event serves as an interesting time capsule of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fans, what do you remember about Portland’s run in Orlando? Tell us in the comments below!