Big lead, then big collapse for Blazers
Editor's note: This is the fourth and final excerpt from "Jail Blazers: How the Portland Trail Blazers Became the Bad Boys of Basketball," a new book written by Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune.
The book is available at Portland bookstores, including Annie Bloom's and Broadway Books, along with assorted Powell's and Barnes & Nobles outlets. The book also can be ordered through Amazon.
There are a handful of playoff games that stand out in the minds of longtime Trail Blazers fans.
Game 6 of the 1977 NBA Finals comes to mind.
Game 3 of a first-round series against Dallas in 2011, when Brandon Roy scored 18 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter of a comeback victory over Dallas.
Damian Lillard's 3-point shot in Game 6 to clinch a first-round series against Houston in 2014.
But Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals ranks high on the list, and from the perspective of Blazer followers, it is the most infamous.
NBC analysts Bill Walton and Steve Jones — both with Portland ties — were set to work the game with the great Bob Costas. Walton was center on the Blazers' 1977 championship team. Jones, a Portland native and former University of Oregon standout, played the 1975–76 campaign with the Blazers. They were at the mic for what some Blazer fans have chosen to call "The Collapse."
The Los Angeles Lakers, down but not out, rallied from a 16-point deficit over the final 12:04 to win 89–84 at Staples Center. They would head into an NBA Finals matchup with Indiana.
The Blazers would return to Portland, then scatter to parts unknown.
The Lakers, who trailed 71–55 late in the third quarter, outscored the Blazers 31–13 in the fourth. Portland missed 13 straight shots as its lead dwindled, then evaporated.
"We realize we made cowards of ourselves in the fourth quarter," Scottie Pippen said in a deathly quiet Portland locker room afterward. "We played like we were fatigued, and they gained the momentum they needed."
In the 1992 Finals, the Blazers had blown a 79–64 lead heading into the fourth quarter of Game 6 at Chicago, and the Bulls won to close out the series in six.
"Very similar," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, the coach of that Chicago team. "However, I had much more confidence in that team. They had won a championship."
The Blazers, who led 42–39 at the half, used a 21–4 spurt in the third quarter to take a 71–55 lead.
The Lakers' Brian Shaw — who, ironically, had agreed to be part of the trade that sent six players to Houston for Pippen the previous October — banked in a 3-point shot from the top with four seconds left, and Portland entered the fourth quarter leading 71–58.
In the final period, the Blazers missed 18-of-23 shots, including 13 in a row — six by Wallace, who was having a terrific game and finished with 30 points.
Wallace also missed two free throws with 1:25 left and Portland trailing 81–79.
The Lakers scored 15 straight points in a 6:10 span to pull even at 75–75 with four minutes remaining.
They held on despite hitting only 4-of-10 free throws over the final 32.9 seconds.
Arvydas Sabonis — who was effectively battling Shaquille O'Neal — picked up his fifth foul with 8:35 remaining and departed with Portland leading 75–65.
When he returned more than four minutes later, the Lakers had scored seven straight.
After feeding Wallace for a layup to give Portland a 77–75 lead, Sabonis fouled out with 2:44 left. Shaq made both free throws to tie it at 77–77.
Kobe Bryant's two free throws with 1:28 left gave the Lakers a 79–77 lead and, moments later, when O'Neal slammed a lob pass thrown by Bryant for an 85–79 advantage, Staples Center was a sea of pandemonium.
Wallace knocked down a trey to cut it to 85–82 with 34.1 seconds to play, but the Lakers wrapped it up at the line.
"We just did not make shots in the fourth quarter," a stunned Portland coach Mike Dunleavy said afterward.
"The Blazers outworked us pretty good the last couple of games, and we didn't want that to happen in a seventh game, particularly on our home floor," said Bryant, who was the best player on the floor with 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, and four blocks.
The Blazer locker room was quiet as a morgue. A sober Pippen put the game in perspective.
"We wanted to be aggressive and continue taking the ball to the basket, but the momentum of the game shifted," he said. "When that happens, the officiating tends to shift, too. We didn't get the calls we were getting earlier. By that time, it was an uphill battle for us, even though we were in the lead."
When Sabonis came to the bench with his fifth foul, it opened up O'Neal's game, Pippen said. "Shaq was allowed to camp out in the lane much longer. The officials never focused on that. If you allow him to stay in the lane like that, when you have to sink back in and guys are shooting the ball as well as they did, they are going to be a tough team to beat."
Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire's final entry in his diary had some soul-searching: "We settled for too many jumpers. We quit going to the hole. It didn't help when Sabas picked up his fifth foul. That let Shaq roam around and he was able to do a little bit of everything. Once they got rolling, we could never sustain anything on our side. If just one or two of the shots would have fallen. … Kudos to the Lakers. It was a hard-fought series. There are no quitters on their side. I know a lot of Blazer fans will say we were the better team. We can sit here and talk about being the better team, but it doesn't make any difference. We are going home, and we don't have practice today. The Lakers are playing for the championship, and not us."
To those inside the franchise, the loss reverberated.
"That was the biggest disappointment of my career," says Jay Jensen, who worked as an NBA trainer for 24 years, 19 in Portland. "I can't even watch [video of] that game. After the game, Scottie came into the training room and was crying like a baby. Scottie wanted a championship so badly. He won six titles in Chicago. He could have gotten out of (Michael Jordan's) shadow and won a title for himself. That game changed the course of two franchises. Had the Lakers lost, they would have probably broken up their franchise. We lost, and we did."
"It was devastating," says Bob Medina, then the Blazers' strength and conditioning coach. "That cracked our franchise. We were never the same after that."
Toward the end of the third quarter of Game 7, reserve forward Antonio Harvey was certain the Blazers were going to win.
"Then Shaw banks in the 3 [at the end of the third quarter], and the Lakers started to feel like they had a chance," he says today. "We weren't built for it the way we thought we were. The only player on the roster ready for that moment was Scottie, but he wasn't Scottie of the Chicago Bulls, a guy equipped to carry that load when he was with Michael Jordan. Rasheed (Wallace) was the best player on the roster but, at that point in his life, I'm not sure he was ready to carry that load. Steve Smith was a great player but, physically, he wasn't what he once was. We were an ensemble cast of former great players, but nobody was in their moment at that time."
Reserve center Joe Kleine was sitting behind the Blazer bench that day. "Through three quarters, they had no answer for Rasheed," Kleine says now. "We kept running a little cross pick and getting him the ball at his sweet spot. But he couldn't get it to go down in the fourth quarter. Rasheed just doesn't miss four or five turnarounds on the baseline, and (Steve) Smith doesn't miss free throws — that just doesn't happen, but it did. Then it just snowballed. "It was a real s***** feeling. To this day, when I watch [video of] the game, and Kobe throws that lob to Shaq, and I see him yelling, 'Our game,' I get pissed off. That was our series, but we couldn't close it out." Assistant coach Jim Eyen will always believe the Blazers would have won had Sabonis not gotten into foul trouble and eventually fouled out.
"I was most disappointed for Arvydas because he was such a professional, and to have the game end the way it ended was terrible," Eyen says today. "He played only five minutes in the fourth quarter. He was whistled for three fouls in five minutes. The first three quarters, he did an unbelievable job out there defending Shaq and spacing the floor on the offensive end. Shaq had so much respect for him, he wouldn't leave him. Phil (Jackson) was yelling at him to drop down for help-side defense. Shaq would yell back, 'I'm not leaving him.'
"For three quarters, we had a lot of things going for us. You just wish we had not been impeded that fourth quarter by Arvydas's fouls, and that he had been able to play it out."
The game still leaves a bad taste in the mouth of Mike Rice, who worked as the Blazers' TV analyst for 26 years.
"I don't remember too many individual games, but I've never forgotten that one, especially with the arrogance of Kobe and Shaq," Rice says. "I don't think I'll ever forget that game. I tried to. It's difficult to get over. That had an effect on the franchise for a very long time."
"I remember Game 7 like it was yesterday," assistant coach Elston Turner says. "Double-digits lead deep into the fourth quarter, and we couldn't hold on. Mike did a hell of a job coaching the team that year. He had us right there. We have the lead, and then we have veteran guys who can't make plays — guys with a résumé of making plays. But for that fourth quarter, nobody could make plays."
Looking back 18 years later, Bob Costas recalls how the Blazers came out from the opening tip of Game 7 looking like a team bound for the NBA Finals.
"They started that game like a house on fire," says the Hall of Fame broadcaster. "All the momentum was theirs, plus all the pressure was on the other side. The Lakers were the favorites, they were at home, and they were up 3–1 before losing Games 5 and 6. Everything was flowing Portland's way.
"Then Shaw hits that 3 at the end of the third quarter to get the Lakers to within 13. It's still a huge number to overcome, especially in a Game 7. But I felt at the time, not that I thought the Lakers would win, but it gave them a whisper of a chance. It seemed like it turned things a little and gave the Lakers a glimmer of hope."
Costas's feeling grew stronger as the score grew closer.
"The exclamation point was the lob to Shaq for the big slam," he says today. "That was the beginning of the baton almost seamlessly being passed from Jordan's Bulls to the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. What's interesting is, they had a really tough time with the Trail Blazers. Then they beat the Pacers in a six-game NBA Finals, but it could have gone seven.
"After that, the Lakers were a juggernaut. They beat the Sixers in five games (in the 2001 Finals) and the Nets in four games (in the 2002 finals), and if they'd played 40 times, they'd have won 40. Their biggest challenges in those years came in the West Finals from the Trail Blazers in 2000 and the Kings in 2002."
Costas searches his memory for comparisons in terms of a collapse with a big lead on such a big stage. He mentions the 2017 Super Bowl, when Atlanta blew a 28–3 third-quarter lead to lose 34–28 in overtime to New England. And Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, in which San Francisco led the Anaheim Angels 5–0 in the eighth inning and lost 6–5. But a Game 7 of a Conference Final or NBA Final?
"I can't think of anything comparable to it," Costas says.
While Costas was aware of the Jail Blazers sobriquet, he's not sure it was applicable.
"The national image was more forgiving than that nickname, in part because guys like Scottie Pippen and Arvydas Sabonis and Brian Grant gave them a little bit of a good citizen's image," Costas says. "Pippen brought his cred from Chicago. Sabonis was an admirable talent who held his own against Shaq as well as anybody. Mike Dunleavy was a respected coach. To a national audience, they were among the faces of the franchise.
"Rasheed [Wallace] was a terrific player who was notorious. He had a chip on his shoulder that stretched from Portland to Los Angeles, from the Rose Garden to Staples Center. The whole league and the whole world were against him, and he set records in technical fouls, which obscured what a good player he was. Bonzi Wells and J. R. Rider and guys like that were alternately an asset and a detriment. But from a national perspective, I don't think they were as much the face of the team."
And, Costas insists, Portland's reputation as a good basketball city helped on a national level.
"The passion of the fans in Portland was high. Games there just felt different. Arco Arena (in Sacramento) was like that during those years, too. The (noise) decibel levels were higher. It's not a coincidence that the Blazers and Kings are the only teams among our main sports leagues in those cities. All the focus goes there.
"The Jail Blazers nickname notwithstanding, they had a pretty good image. The idea of Portland being a good basketball town and a consistent contender during the decade, there was respect for that."