Lovable Losers Part Two: ’99-00 Portland Trailblazers

[Originally posted on sportsblog.com 12/29/13]

This will probably be one of the more painful posts I will ever have to write. Not just because this was one of my favorite NBA rosters of all time, but also because it signaled the beginning of a Lakers dynasty that (arguably) should have never been. Had Portland won that series, Jalen Rose, Reggie Miller, and Rick Smits may have won themselves championship rings. Rip City might have had a different decade than the one that elicited this video essay from Bill Simmons. We would be talking about Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in a whole new light. Maybe even the 2002 Kings would have managed to not get jobbed out of a chance to compete for the NBA title. As it stands, the Lakers beat the Blazers in the ’99-00 playoffs and this play will remain in NBA folklore forever. Today we will examine one of my favorite all time teams not win a dog gone thing: the ’99-00 Trailblazers.

Head Coach: Mike Dunleavy

Team Record: 59-23

Starters:

C Arvydas Sabonis, PF Rasheed Wallace, SF Scottie Pippen SG Steve Smith, PG Damon Stoudamire

Key Bench Players: PG Greg Anthony, SG Stacey Augmon PF Jermaine O’Neal, PF Brian Grant

SF Detlef Schrempf , SF Bonzi Wells

Besides Scottie Pippen, no one on the team had won an NBA championship. Scottie was supposed to be the player they needed to get them over the hump. I was never crazy about Scottie as a player (I hated the Bulls) but I had to admit the dude was good, and he definitely had championship experience playing with Jordan.

Rasheed was already one of my favorite players of all time. I had watched him as much as I could during his Carolina days and I loved his game. Rasheed could post up anyone on the block (something I always wished he’d done more of–he seemed to fall in love with shooting the 3 pointer). He could also get hot and make teams pay with his long range shooting (I remember him yelling at the Mavericks one time to “get someone on him” after he was taxing them with 3 pointers). Best of all, ‘Sheed refused to break under the iron fisted rule of David Stern. He managed to become one of the best quotable athletes of my generation (Warren Sapp is one of the other guys who comes to mind too)

Greg Anthony was one of may favorite guys too—I had first started watching hoops during his UNLV days and rooted for him when he played on the Knicks. I can’t say enough about Sabonis. I loved how he passed, I loved his shot, I loved that he was old and rickety, but still had enough old man game in him to make an impact. The whole time he played in the NBA, I wondered just how good he’d have been had he came into the league when he was young and healthy.

The rest of the guys I was whatever about. My little brother loved Bonzi for some strange reason (I think it was the head band). Mighty Mouse (Stoudamire) was an okay player, Augmon, Steve Smith, and Schrempf were good enough. I had never been too crazy about them as players, but I had owned their basketball cards at one time or another when I collected. Brian Grant seemed like a cool dude (this would be confirmed years later when I would run into him at PDX airport one summer).

There is something about game 7 of the Western Conference Finals that still haunts me to this day. I watched the game with my little brother and we laughed, oohed and awed in glee at the way the game was going. The Lakers were making mistakes and the Blazers were capitalizing on it. Los Angeles couldn’t figure out an answer to the Blazers’ offense the whole series.

Sabonis was setting up outside of the paint and daring Shaq to come and guard him. If Shaq ventured out to pick him up, Sabonis whipped a sick pass towards a cutter for an easy bucket (and for those of you who don’t know, Sabonis is one of the best passing big men the NBA has ever seen–check out this pass). If Shaq stayed in the paint, then Arvydas just hoisted up a 3 ball. Rasheed was popping it like he was known to do back then (he had 30 points in that game 7 while shooting only 2 3 pointers). There was even a stretch where Bonzi Wells seemed to be taking over the game (eliciting a “give it to Bonzi!” every time the Blazers brought the ball down).

To this day I can’t stand to watch replays of that game. My brother and I watched in uncomfortable silence as the Blazers all of a sudden stopped making baskets, and the Lakers started to digging into the (what appeared to be a comfortable) 15 point lead. By the time Kobe hit Shaq on the alley-oop, we were too stunned to speak. I spent the rest of the day trying to process the disappointment of not only the hated Lakers being back in the Finals, but my favorite cast of characters (since the ’93 Suns) losing their chance to face the Pacers. It reminded me of the feelings of bewilderment as I watched the Houston Oilers collapse against the Buffalo Bills in the 1992 playoffs.

So was it the Lakers defense or were the Blazers just standing around and settling on bad shots? I can’t tell you, and I don’t care to remember. But if you look at the box scores of that game you will see that Schrempf and Bonzi were the only two players to come off the bench and score (a combined total of 13 points). Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, and Derek Fisher combined for 25 points off the bench.

I can vividly recall the growing frustration with Portland’s inability to get buckets (there may have been a 8 minute scoreless stretch during the 4th quarter). They played great defense that game. If someone told me beforehand that Kobe would only get 25 points and Shaq would only get 18 points on 5 for 9 shooting, I would have penciled in a W for the Blazers. But it just wasn’t meant to be. No one could get any buckets in the paint (Sabonis and Pippen combined to score as many as Shaquille).

I’m sure some of the outcome has to do with the coaching match up of Phil Jackson vs. Mike Dunleavy. I’m sure by game 7 Phil had made the necessary adjustments to curb the Sabonis-O’Neal advantage that Portland had been exploiting over the course of the series. I’m also certain that Phil had made sure the Lakers stuck to their defensive assignments and forced Portland to be a jump shooting team.

Looking at things now as a 35 year old man, and not as an emotional 21 year Lakers hater, adds a little context to the situation. If I were to watch that tape now, it would probably be more of an examination of how brilliant of a coach Phil Jackson was, rather than revisiting one of the greatest collapses in sports history. The final score of the game was 89-84, Los Angeles, and the rest is history.

The Lakers became a dynasty and Portland well…. just watch the video essay by Simmons. I can’t necessarily say the Trailblazers were losers, they fought back from a 3-1 series deficit to get to that pivotal moment for both franchises. I can say that every Trailblazers fan I have come across since that night wears the same look of disappointment when that game 7 comes up in conversation. If you watched game 7 of the Western Conference Finals that year, its something that is impossible to forget.

Unfortunately Sabonis never got a ring, neither did Anthony,or anyone on that team other Rasheed (2004 Pistons). Only three players from that series are even active now, Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, and Jermaine O’Neal. Of the three, Derek Fisher is the only one not on the injured list (I’m not sure what this says about OKC that they are still relying on his production). O’Neal broke his hand playing for the Warriors, and Kobe of course broke his kneecap.

You know what? This post wasn’t quite as painful as I thought it would be. After careful examination, its much easier to give props to L.A. than to chastise Portland for choking. A few years ago, my buddy and I replayed this game on X-BOX, with me as Portland and he the Lakers. The game wasn’t even that close. He smashed me. Besides an occasional 3 pointer from Sabonis and Wallace, it was difficult getting buckets. I figured Greg Anthony and Schrempf would keep his team honest, but if the jumpers weren’t falling, I was in trouble. Every time I took the ball in the paint, my players would get blocked by Shaq or the ball would get stolen by one of his lengthy defenders. The frustration was building and soon I was cussing and yelling at the players on screen. His response was classic. ” Why you getting mad dude? There is a reason why they didn’t win anything. Pick a better team next time.”

Sometimes it’s not meant to be. Just ask Spurs fans.

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