I am writing this at 11:14 in the evening, after the Portland Trail Blazers have been swept out of the Western Conference Finals by the Golden State Warriors. By all objective measurements, the Blazers had a fabulous season. But I am not finding myself in a charitable mood about it yet.
Sweeps suck. You lose at home, and by necessity, it diffuses the energy that comes with playing in the playoffs. I wanted the Blazers to take one game, even in futility, and they just couldn't make it happen.
The form the WCF took was frustrating by itself. The first game mostly went as expected—the Blazers looked tired, the Warriors looked ready, the Blazers got stomped. There's a cold logic to that, something I can accept. But three games in a row where the squad had a double-digit lead and slowly watched it get washed away in an orgy of Warrior three pointers and gonzo tactical method from the Blazers? That's a pretty frustrating watch.
Last night's game featured a career-best performance from—of all people—Meyers Leonard, who got major burn in this series. The reason why is fairly simple: The Warriors opted to aggressively trap Damian Lillard above the three-point line all series, and Enes Kanter wasn't really equipped to act as the team's second option in that instance, passing out of the trap to a big man in the high post and having him operate from there. Leonard has been playing in Terry Stotts' flow scheme for a long time, and he had a better idea how to execute the backup plan than Kanter.
All playoffs, the Blazers managed to improvise without Jusuf Nurkic, their second-best player by most measurements. Kanter and Leonard made the most of the opportunities—Kanter by playing the best defense of his career and bullying dudes for offensive boards, and Leonard by, uh, playing well for the first time in years.
But when push came to shove and they were forced to cover pick-and-rolls with the NBA's most prestigious guard and create offense against a lethally focused Draymond Green, the center—and centers—just couldn't hold anymore. The gap was immediately exposed, and Nurkic, in his absence, became essential to the normal function of the Blazers again.
Would they be headed to the Finals if Nurk had stayed healthy? Probably not. The Warriors are the defining team of this generation, nigh unstoppable. But with Kevin Durant out, and the squad looking older, who honestly knows? They would have taken one or two, at least.
Then again, craving is the source of all suffering, and dreaming of the world that won't be fills one's hands with nothing.
The Blazers fanbase occasionally seemed nearly tormented by this run. During the course of the postseason, they unleashed rage on the Nuggets' benign center Nikola Jokic, Russell Westbrook, Draymond Green and, just for good measure, James Harden. They concocted conspiratorial thoughts about referees and called them out by name, and collected national media slights like gold coins. When The Oregonian posted a picture of Lillard with a Crying Jordan face and quoted forgotten hack Skip Bayless calling CJ and Dame "the Trash Brothers" after Game 3 of the WCF, the pitchforks really came out ,and Chris McGowan, the team's president, said that the team would stop doing business with the state's biggest paper.
Just like the Buddha said, the taste of success created anxiety. But again, quoth the bard Jeff Rosenstock, "love is worry." You can't have one without the other.
The Blazers had an absolutely wonderful season and postseason. Lillard managed to hit his second series-winning shot of his career, a 37-foot bomb right in the defender's face, against the OKC Thunder, a crummy, stolen team that is just a delightful to watch get beat down, while notching his 50th point at the same time. It was just magical.
The team went on to face Denver, in one of those series that seems to mostly prove that the two teams were exactly as good as each other. They played and won a four overtime game, the first in the playoffs since the 1950s, back when everything was shown on tape delay.
Unlikely heroes abounded. Rodney Hood showed out, a season after seeming like he wasn't an NBA player on the Cavs last year. Enes Kanter, one of the NBA's most fascinating men, bruised and bled, ground out boards and points on pivots. Meyers Leonard played gonzo ball against the Warriors while the team was sinking. Evan Turner won a game on his own. Seth Curry squared off against his brother.
It was just wild, man—heaps of dudes chipping in unreasonable games to keep the team choogling night after night. It's almost disgusting, how the team's best playoff showing since 2000 was the product of underdogism. Blazers fans like that shit too much. It creates a perfect sense of manifest wonder in them. Frankly, no sports fan deserves to have their self-image projected so totally by their squad on the court.
The offseason is on now. The team is capped out, getting older and really needing someone on the wing.
God only knows what going to happen. Lillard will be eligible for a supermax contract, the massive heaping pile of money that keeps a guy somewhere his whole career but also invests a lot in the continued health and success of one player. I don't know anyone who doesn't think he deserves it.
Aside from Dame, Al-Farouq Aminu will be a free agent, and has maybe played his way out of the Blazers' price range. Leonard and Turner will be expiring contracts—attractive assets for a rebuilding squad to offload veteran talent.
Nurkic's injury will take time, maybe a whole season, but a full recovery is likely, even if the Blazers' solution at center is a big question mark next season—Zach Collins might be actually good, which should help. Kanter and Hood have almost certainly played their way into a contract the team can't offer, though Hood could find himself filling out a different roster than the one we knew this year.
McCollum played like a bat out of hell in this series and probably solidified his status as a talent you could never get equal return for. But there's always a drizzle of wonder about if he's the best fit next to Lillard.
But for the next few weeks, before all that starts, I'm going to try and bathe in the memory of this weirdo season—borne from failure and fated to eventual defeat, but loaded with wild, weird, life-affirming shit along the way.
MORE WW BLAZERS COVERAGE: