As the season drew to a late and ultimately merciful end, nostalgia rolled through the city as fans folded their Rip City shirts and tucked them away until a later date.
Along with the shirts, they are also putting away memories of a season that brought about unfathomable successes, unforgettable moments, and ultimately, an unmistakeable path toward the future.
The season may have ended abruptly in the cold San Antonio winds, but a calmness resided in the Blazers’ locker room. For a young squad that was pegged as a fringe playoff team at best, their magical ride to the second round came seemingly out of nowhere—unless you ask the players responsible, who have never wavered in their belief that they belonged.
In the locker room, Jason Quick of The Oregonian showed the players a picture he snapped during the fourth quarter last night, a poignant visual that demonstrates where this team is at despite elimination.
All five starters sat together as the season drifted away, never leaving each other’s side. Upon seeing the picture, they held their heads high, proud of the fact that not once did they flinch, even under the tidal wave of plays by the Spurs.
“That was, hey man, if we are going to go down, we are not going to just lay down,” Damian Lillard said. “We are going to finish the right way…we are going to finish it out like a true competitor.”
The seeds of success have been planted for the organization; the wins just sprouted sooner than expected.
Built for the future
When training camp began in October, and preseason projections began rolling out, it was not uncommon to see the Blazers picked near the bottom of the West, a fringe playoff team at best, yet presumably a year away.
Twenty-nine games into the season, and all the predictions had been blown out of the water.
They were 25–4, playing with a fire and attitude that had not been seen in these parts for some time. They approached every game as if it were their last, and in the process took down some of the elite teams. The Pacers, Thunder and Spurs, to name a few, all fell victim to the Blazers’ unrelenting style and 3-point barrages.
They played loose, hard and without fear. They were too naive to know any better. They shot without a care, passed as if no one were in their way, and never backed down even in the final seconds. They played like hunters, taking down unsuspecting prey one by one.
In the process, they saw two men rise above, showing the rest of the league that Portland was no longer a side show. They were legit contenders.
Two men, one weekend
It will eventually be a footnote, nothing more than a memory. But in the heart of Mardi Gras, Lillard and Lamarcus Aldridge, the faces of a franchise so desperate for an identity, took center stage at All-Star weekend and represented the Blazers as no one else could.
While Aldridge, in his third appearance, took the time to relax, Lillard took his profile and his brand to new heights.
Competing in five events throughout the weekend, Lillard was the talk of the town and ultimately helped push Portland into people’s consciousness.
He made it cool to be a Blazers fan again.
When Lillard and Aldridge walked through the tunnel that Sunday, taking their place next to the best the game has to offer, you knew instantly that something special was being built, perhaps sooner than later.
Rocky middle, sterling end
As is expected from a young, inexperienced team, struggles abounded as the season drew to a close, hitting bottom after a loss to the lowly Magic in March.
Hit by injuries to Aldridge—who had established himself early on as a legit MVP candidate—the Blazers lacked an identity, a five-cylinder machine running on four.
They never turned on each other, not even in the darkest moments, signaling to all that they have something different inside them.
When Aldridge returned and order was restored, they finished the season strong, notching 54 wins and a fifth seed in the West—a far cry from where the so-called experts predicted they would be.
What awaited them was a match-up with the Houston Rockets, a rematch of the 2008 playoffs.
Both times Portland entered off a surprising season as a young, likable squad with 54 wins.
This time, however, things would be much different.
A stepping stone
When Brandon Roy and Co. took the town by storm in 2008, there was a sense that things were just starting to take off. They had a young center in Greg Oden that had yet to scratch the surface, an All-Star in Roy and a building block in Aldridge. They had shooters in Martell Webster, Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw. They had a tough-as-nails enforcer in Joel Pryzbilla, and they had a young, energetic coach in Nate McMillan.
What they didn’t have was a taste of success. And after three straight one-and-done seasons combined with devastating injuries, it was blown up, a promising future ushered out the door.
This year, the same was feared. The Rockets were viewed as a match-up nightmare, with Dwight Howard and James Harden figuring to get the lion’s share of calls and breaks.
They did. Only this time, this team, this togetherness was different.
Portland never wavered, stealing the first two games in Houston and finally setting up a Game 6 in Portland, their first trip to the second round in 14 years was just one win away.
0.9 for a decade
Every franchise has a moment, a memory that fans can look back on for generations. On May 2, Lillard etched his place in history, hitting the shot that propelled the Blazers past their demons.
You know the story. Ask anyone what 0.9 means and in all likelihood they’ll tell you they were there.
Whether Lillard’s shot ultimately propels them to greatness won’t be known for a long time, possibly years. But what it did for this team, this town, cannot be debated. For the first time in what feels like forever, there is now a feeling that Portland belongs.
There is, finally, a belief that something good can happen for a franchise so often snake-bitten.
Down, but a lesson taught
With the second round came a date with a buzz-saw. The San Antonio Spurs, model NBA franchise, outclassed Portland on the floor in every way the last five games. It was never close, the veteran Spurs making a mockery of any Blazer run.
And it may be the best thing that could have happened.
When the picture was snapped by Quick, there were but eight minutes left in the season. There were no more last ditch hopes at a comeback. The players and coaches knew it was over.
And yet there they sat, together, just as they did in October when no one thought they had a chance. They waited and watched, and hopefully let the moment sink in. For the lessons that San Antonio taught should be the driving force for an off-season that will go down as perhaps the most important in franchise history.
They’re close, yet far away
What’s different is the players know what it’s like to surpass their goals, yet they still have plenty left to prove. The powers that be see what’s missing: A better bench and a lock-down defender. Terry Stotts sees what he did wrong, and when he did it.
They can see all of this starting now, as the off-season begins anew. But for the moment, they need to be applauded for the gift they gave fans on a nightly basis.
They gave us hope, and they gave us a promise of better things to come. A year full of memories to put on the wall, highlighted by 0.9.
Fans get to enjoy it for what it was. Now the players get to go back to work, knowing full well they are capable of greatness.