The Portland Trail Blazers are once again a marquee team. There are qualifiers to be made and some nuance to add, but let’s treat Portland’s series win over the Houston Rockets -- and the Damian Lillard buzzer-beater on which it occurred -- as what it was: a step from the league’s periphery to its center, from a potential team of tomorrow to a team of today.
That’s sort of a sticky claim, I realize, so let me elaborate. In many ways, the Blazers have already had a legitimizing season. They came in with playoff expectations, won 54 games and established themselves pretty soundly as one of the more enjoyable viewing appointments in the league. But they were nonetheless more spice than entrée, a refreshing diversion from the title pursuits and metropolitan melodrama that keeps the focus of an NBA season elsewhere.
That has changed because of what the Blazers proved in the first round. When next season tips off, fans nationwide will make note of Blazers games. Matchups with teams chasing titles will become portentous measuring sticks. Visits from superstars will become showdowns. Over the course of this season, the Blazers were a team to tune in for; over the past two weeks, they proved themselves a team to invest in.
Legitimacy in the age of constant analysis is a fickle concept. Mostly, fans are smart enough now to understand that close losses aren’t really an indication of quality. If the Blazers had dropped the Rockets series -- after the Jeremy Lin-to-Troy Daniels prayer and the Chandler Parsons miracle putback preceding Lillard’s dagger -- most would understand that a good team caught some tough breaks. There would probably have been relatively quiet doubts about their toughness, and a few somewhat louder doubts about late-game execution, but the Blazers were already playing with house money.
All of which is an accomplishment, but not what you strive for. Broadly speaking, the NBA season is a drama starring LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and maybe four other teams whose play seems to organize the long months. There are other players who can enliven a few scenes, but the gap between character actors and star teams is a big one. And what the stars have in common, I contend, is their ability to contradict the sum of what we know about them, which is now a good deal more than it used to be.
We return to the Blazers. They peaked early, played intermittently acceptable defense and were anchored by a big man who shot more midrange jumpers than any other player in the league. We knew them. Until, that is, LaMarcus Aldridge went for more than 80 points in the first two games and Lillard buried what may be the most important shot in Blazers’ history.
More about that shot, because it deserves it: What will endure for me is not just that Lillard got off such a clean look, or that he buried it, but the way he clapped for the ball as he ran free around a double screen, already realizing what was coming. After the game, Nic Batum admitted that the first option for the play was Aldridge, but Lillard was clapping so confidently that Batum knew he had to get him the ball. For me, it’s the clap that elevates the shot to a place where it elevates the whole team.
Essentially, I am arguing that the NBA’s ruling class -- dysfunctional or competitive -- is the class of teams that have proven an ability to exceed fans’ imaginations, and in doing so hold their attentions. They elevate what could not happen to that which happens. Nobody, in their first NBA postseason, gets a wide open 28-footer with less than a second left to clinch a series on their home court. It’s simply too neat. Until Damian Lillard does.
With a series, and with a shot that changed the series, the Blazers join the small class of teams fans will entrust a season story to, because they have now proven an ability to go farther than reason could take them. We watch to see whether LeBron will become the indomitable force he did when he scored 29 of the Cavs’ final 30 points, to see whether the Knicks can best their own standard for dysfunction. To see whether Portland’s young point guard can possibly continue to be one of the league’s most dangerous options in the clutch.
If they were playing with house money before, the Trail Blazers are perhaps doubly so now. Though they’ve matched up well with San Antonio this season, they’re getting long odds on a series upset. If they lose, they will be remembered for their wildly entertaining series and that incredible shot, and they are positioned to improve for the foreseeable future. Of course they have more to play for, and of course they aren't just happy to be here. But after a series in which they took fans to a higher state than we could have predicted, they've proven they belong here, where everybody is watching.