I had seldom ever felt so down.
Standing behind the 300-level at the Moda Center, attending my first ever playoff game, expecting the Portland Trail Blazers might burst out to a double-digit lead after losing their first home game in the series, I was deflated.
The Blazers were on their heels, reacting (badly) to what the Houston Rockets did, unable to get anything going on offense, and unable to stop anyone, especially Chandler Parsons, on defense.
As the second quarter ended, I turned to my partner while the acrobats balanced, jumped, and flipping for a handful of equally-dejected fans during the halftime show and said, “they should be down 20. Or 30. That they’re down 10 is a miracle.”
And it was. Sort of.
Because while there was little to cheer for and little to be hopeful of, these Blazers don’t quit. They just don’t. Far past the time when most people would evaluate what adjustments could be made and, finding no obvious ones, say, “welp, we tried,” these Blazers challenged each other. Called themselves wussies. Egged each other on. Told each other not to worry about questionable calls that have marred nearly every NBA playoffs series this year and just man up.
When no identifiable strategy could be changed, the Blazers did the only thing they had left. They changed themselves.
The impact wasn’t immediate. The third quarter didn’t start with a bang. If anything, it was all the more frustrating to have every little run nipped in the bud, every punch countered, every call responded to. The Rockets hovered around an 8-10 point lead, but something in the building was shifting. I felt it. Everyone felt it. Yeah, we were down, and yeah, there was no seismic shift in tactics, but something felt different.
When Damian Lillard curled around the left corner arc, drifted, and nailed a three to end the third, the building erupted with relief as much as excitement. The Rockets’ lead was 5, and, at least for a few minutes, it would STAY at 5 until the game resumed. The bar had been reset. That punch landed squarely, and both fighters were sent to their corners to think about it.
The Blazers kept chipping away. The Rockets responded, but now the crowd was awake. A few times they showed a decibel meter registering just north of 120 at floor level, the equivalent of an M-80 departing from the runway. By the time the Blazers had built a 5-point lead with just under 3 minutes to play, there wasn’t a man, woman, or child that wasn’t screaming like their life depended on it. The place was nuts. I had never seen, felt, or heard anything like it. I could literally feel the sound waves hit my hand through the beer I was holding each time the crowd erupted. It was that loud.
Then the Rockets responded, again. 5 points became 3. 3 became 2. 2 became 0. And zero became a 2-point deficit as James Harden‘s beard flopped its way across the court like a fish out of water, running full bore into defenders on what might normally be a no-call, but by throwing the ball away and flailing his limbs like a crash test dummy dropped off a building, the refs had no choice but to do something.
Down by 2, with time running out, after squandering a late 5-point lead, what came next cannot be done justice by words. You just need to watch.
I had seldom ever felt so up. My eyes had never been wider. Sounds were coming out of my mouth born of late-11th century dead languages. It certainly wasn’t English.
It almost didn’t matter that the game went into overtime, where a number of other amazing plays could command their own 1000-word retrospectives. That play by Mo Williams, who I have criticized endlessly, whose presence on the court makes me nervous, whose plays are either very good or very bad (with almost no middle ground), made a very good play at a very good time. Clutch doesn’t begin to describe it. The Blazers’ post-season lives were at stake, and Williams kept them alive with one play.
It’s no surprise, then, that Mo Williams was the one to start that halftime locker room speech. By all accounts, it was directed at himself as much as anyone else. He was the wussy. He was the one who needed to stop complaining and just meet the crisis at the moment. And while the rest of his game may have been questionable, he made it happen not a moment too soon.
To me, that’s what these Blazers are all about: meeting challenges when challenges need meeting. Forgetting what came before, and going all out. It’s a great lesson not only for basketball, but for life, and we can only hope the Blazers can continue teaching it for another 13 wins this postseason.