Despite winning the NBA championship in 1977, the Portland Trailblazers have long been known as a forlorn franchise with terrible luck with injuries. Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Brandon Roy, Greg Oden…the list is extensive when you take into account how many able-bodied, potential stars went down and held the team back from contending or winning more titles.
In light of their setbacks, you wouldn’t be surprised if the team experienced some down decades and periods of prolonged playoff absences, but a collective underdog spirit within the franchise allowed them to reach the postseason in all but one season between 1977 and 2003 (1982, when they still won 42 games). Their lowest win percentage in that 27-year-period was .463, and they averaged 48 wins a season.
Perhaps their most celebrated era was the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, when Clyde “The Glide” Drexler led the Blazers to two NBA Finals (1990, 1992) and a 63-win season that earned them the best record in the league (1991). Portland eventually traded Drexler away in 1995, in the midst of a 6-year drought without a playoff series win.
1996 was a critical year for Portland, as they traded for young power forward Rasheed Wallace. Paired with multi-talented center Arvydas Sabonis, the two big men formed a formidable post tandem. Damon Stoudamire arrived a year later to claim the starting point guard spot, and by 1999 the team had added a solid bench core of Bonzi Wells, Brian Grant, and Jermaine O’Neal.
In the lockout-shortened 1999 season, the Blazers reeled off 35 regular season wins, good enough for the 3-seed by virtue of winning the Pacific Division. In the first round, Portland easily swept the Phoenix Suns in three games with double-digit wins in each. The second round pitted them against the two-time defending Western Conference champion Utah Jazz, a team led by MVP Karl Malone that had been stymied by the Chicago Bulls in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals.
The Jazz were exhausted from a 5-game first round win over the Sacramento Kings but held serve in game one at home to take a 1-0 lead. The Blazers stormed back with three straight close wins to move within a game of their first Western Conference Finals birth since 1992. Utah staved off elimination with a 17-point win at home in game five, but Portland finished the job in game six to move on to face the #1 seed San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs jumped out to a 1-0 lead after game one, but the Blazers nearly stole homecourt advantage in game two. Sean Elliott’s improbable “Memorial Day Miracle” gave San Antonio the win, and the Spurs finished off their sweep with a dominant defensive win in game three and a convincing 14-point win in game four to eliminate Portland.
Despite the disappointing playoff exit, the Blazers returned the following season geared up to make another run. They acquired Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, and Detlef Schrempf to fill out the wing, and 59 regular season wins sent them into the playoffs again as the #3 seed.
Western Conference First Round
In the first round, the Blazers took on Kevin Garnett and the hapless Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that had never won a playoff series in their 11-year history. The T-Wolves climbed back after a first quarter deficit, but Portland seized a close game one after a fourth quarter comeback. Game two was a similar tightly contested game, but the Blazers seized a 2-0 series lead after a strong second half.
Back at home, the T-Wolves staved off elimination in game three, but the Blazers defense held them to 77 points in game four as Portland clinched their third victory and moved on to the semifinals, their second straight season of winning a playoff series.
Western Conference Semifinals
Again facing the Utah Jazz in the second round, the surging Blazers easily won the first two games by margins of 19 and 18 respectively. Back in Utah, the Blazers continued to dominate with a game three victory to go up 3-0. The Jazz appeared to be nearing the end of their run as contenders, as Karl Malone and John Stockton sought to stay alive and avoid bowing out in the semifinals for the second straight year.
Game four was the first close game of the series as the Jazz desperately held on to keep their season going, but in game five the Blazers needed a strong second half to eliminate Utah and move on to their second consecutive Western Conference Finals appearance. Their task at hand would be to overcome another #1 seed, the 65-win Los Angeles Lakers who featured the best 1-2 punch in the league with MVP Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Western Conference Finals
Portland quickly fell behind on the road in the opener as Shaq dominated in the post to the tune of 41 points, but the Blazers rallied back with a resounding 29-point win in game two to tie the series heading back to Oregon, where they had only lost 11 home games all season.
The Blazers’ fortunes turned south after losses at home in both games three and four, the first of which was a close disappointment as Sabonis’ potential game-tying shot was blocked by Bryant. Wallace’s 34 points in game four fell by the wayside as Portland blew a first half lead to fall behind 3-1 in the series with two games remaining in Los Angeles.
Bryant fouled out of game five, and the Blazers were able to stave off a fourth quarter comeback from the Lakers to stay alive. Back home in game six, Portland got a huge contribution from Bonzi Wells off the bench for 20 points, and the Blazers were able to force a decisive game seven back down in Los Angeles.
A strong first quarter allowed Portland to establish an early lead, and a lead at the half meant they were well on their way to pulling off the biggest upset in recent history in the Western Conference playoffs. The Blazers kept rolling with an explosion in the third, stretching their lead to as much as 16 points. But the Lakers refused to die, and a fourth quarter surge led by Bryant, Brian Shaw, and Robert Horry sparked an improbably comeback as Portland went cold from the field in the final period. Los Angeles capped off the turnaround with an iconic alley-oop from Bryant to Shaq, and the Blazers again fizzled out in the Western Conference Finals, one step shy of their ultimate goal.
Locker room turmoil and attitude problems troubled the Blazers for the next several years, and in 2004 they finally traded away Wallace, signaling a full rebuild as they anticipated their first lottery season in nearly thirty years. Though they returned to the playoffs in the late ‘00s, injuries to Oden and Roy would keep them from reaching the second round. Led by young phenom point guard Damian Lillard, the Blazers beat the Houston Rockets in the first round in 2014, giving them their first playoff series win since their magical trip to the 2000 WCF.