PORTLAND — A weight has been lifted off Rip City.
With 19 seconds left and the game tied at 96, James Harden went one-on-one against Wesley Matthews. Harden gave Matthews his best hesitation crossover, but had to settle for a step-back 19-footer that clunked off the rim. A mad scramble ensued underneath the basket, and Chandler Parsons emerged. The Rockets forward, quiet all night, scooped up the loose ball, and gently banked in a layup that gave Houston a two-point lead with 0.9 seconds left. The Blazers called timeout and the entire arena knew what was coming next.
"I didn't think [Damian Lillard] would come that open," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said after the game. "[LaMarcus Aldridge] was the first look."
With fans standing in eager anticipation, Lillard ran across a staggered double screen that put him in the same spot Brandon Roy was when he hit a game-winner against the Rockets in 2008. Coming toward the sideline, Lillard clapped his hands, received the inbounds pass from Nicolas Batum and put home a game-winning shot at the buzzer that sent Houston packing and the Trail Blazers into the second round for the first time since the 1999-2000 NBA season.
For fans, it’s been a long time coming.
The minutia of the Blazers' storyline since their last first round triumph has largely escaped the national spotlight. After the collapse of the Mike Dunleavy-led title contenders, most are quick to jump straight to the "Jail Blazers" of the early '00s. Then comes Brandon Roy, and a few quick playoff exits later, the Blazers are here.
But the story of Portland is more complex than that. They've gone through two remarkably quick rebuilds, the evolution of a superstar in Aldridge and the disappointing fact that through it all, the fans in Stumptown have ached for a playoff victory for their one and only major sports team.
The Trail Blazers know heartbreak better than anyone in the postseason. Fans are more than aware that before Friday night, they held the longest second-round playoff drought of any playoff team. An entire team came and went in Charlotte in the time it has taken the Blazers to make another appearance into the third week of May.
Whether via Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas or Houston, the agony of failing to make the second round has turned an eager fan base into a self-deprecating, passionate group of glass-half-empty-of-IPA pessimists. Disappointment, especially when expectations are high, has instead become the expectation.
"I've been here so long, I definitely know," Aldridge said. "This city has been waiting for this type of moment — this night — for a long time."
Portland’s historic occasion comes on the shoulders of a whirlwind 12 months of activity for the franchise. Despite last season’s 33-win campaign, the Trail Blazers’ had an optimistic outlook for 2013-14. Lillard had won Rookie of the Year honors, and Neil Olshey fortified the team's depth by trading for Robin Lopez and adding Mo Williams.
But no one in Portlandia could have predicted the offensive juggernaut that took the floor come October. The Trail Blazers’ hot start fed not only visions of grandeur in the playoffs, but a sense of belonging among the NBA’s elite once again. Portland, a suburban metro area with more basketball hoops per-block than fire hydrants, wanted to be part of the national basketball scene as they had more than a decade ago. With Lillard at the helm, Aldridge playing like an MVP candidate and Matthews raining threes at an amazing rate, they were.
But as the regular season turned to the postseason, so too did the candor of the fans in Rip City. As the thrill of a season turned oh-so-right moved to the seriousness of a playoff tournament, the beasts of burdens' past reared their ugly heads. As the Rockets rallied to bring the series to 3-2, doubt began to creep into the minds of the city. They'd been here before, most recently at the hands of Houston in 2009. Murmurs grew around the city that, if Portland couldn't win on Friday, there was little chance for them in Game 7 in Texas.
When Lillard squared up from 25 feet as time expired, it wasn't just a game or series that he won. He shifted the balance of thinking for an entire fan base.
"This city loves basketball, and to give them this type of series and to give them a shot like that to end it, they love it," Aldridge said. "They've been behind us the whole season."
As the Trail Blazers move to the second round to face the winner of San Antonio-Dallas, the team will no doubt have absolute focus. One round doesn't make a playoff run, and Portland will have their hands full with either opponent. But with a franchise that has been so historically connected to their city, the feeling of relief from the fanbase must ease the burden felt by players heading into the semifinals.
"It's a good feeling," Matthews said. "I'm excited for Portland. Such a prideful fan base, and city and state. I'm excited for them."