It had all the makings of another heroic ending for Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers star, on his way to a 55 point night, drained a step-back three-pointer in the final seconds to send game five of Portland’s first-round playoff series to overtime. Yet, the fairy tale ending was not to be as the Denver Nuggets prevailed after two overtimes to take a 3-2 series lead as the series shifts back to Portland for Game 6.
For the Blazers, Game 6, and hopefully, Game 7 are a battle against a narrative several seasons in the making. Good, just not good enough. Playoff bait. A team needs to decide if it wants to be more than a scrappy underdog. Terry Stotts has led the Blazers to the playoffs for eight straight seasons, but four of those have ended in first-round exits. It could be five if the Blazers don’t rally for two straight wins over the Nuggets. At this point in his career, Lillard is inarguably the best player in franchise history but has to make an appearance in the NBA finals, much less obtain the ring the Blazers have hungered for since 1977. To continue their quest to obtain it, the Blazers will need to win two straight games and then win their way out of the bottom of the bracket.
Yes, the Blazers are the sixth seed in a tough Western Conference, but should they be? In the past year, the Blazers have been passed by the Nuggets and Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference standings. The Suns, who were languishing at the bottom of the conference two years ago, are one win away from knocking out the defending champion Lakers. The Blazers, meanwhile, are also one game away from going home. All that matters is the last team standing to hoist the Naismith Trophy. Should this Blazers team, with Lillard, an excellent running mate in CJ McCollum, and a solid supporting cast led by Joseph Nurkic, really be considered an underdog? This is the eighth season since Lillard announced himself on the playoff stage with a last-second three-pointer against the Houston Rockets to send the Blazers to the second round in 2014. Monday night looked like it might be another opportunity for such heroics. Lord knows Lillard provided plenty, with a playoff record 12 three-pointers. But the statistical records and splashy highlights don’t mean much if the team can’t get out of the first round.
That’s the narrative the team has two games to fight. Two games could make the difference between the team trying to decide which pieces are keeping around Lillard, if Stotts returns for a chance at a ninth playoff run, or if Lillard gets another opportunity to build on his record-breaking playoff performance in the next round. It’s a narrative that took some wild swings, with the Nuggets having a 95% win probability after starting the game on a 13-1 run, to the Blazers rallying to take a lead, to Lillard tying the game in the closing seconds, to things finally falling apart in the second overtime. In so many spots this season, the narrative could have been different. Would the team be facing the same questions with a top-four regular-season finish? If they played slightly better defense? Or even if they finished off their comeback against the Nuggets last night? If they can win two straight and get to the next round, maybe those questions don’t need to be answered. And if the Blazers battle their way to a title, they are probably questions that don’t even matter. But to make them moot, the Blazers need to win Thursday night.