Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors

The Trail Blazers and Raptors are rewarded for keeping the faith

Golden State won game one of the Western Conference finals against Portland by 22. Yet in a sense, the Blazers being here is already a victory. For five years, Golden State’s shadow has stretched across the league, dimming a number of teams’ willingness to compete. Once Kevin Durant came aboard, conventional wisdom held it was best to punt on the present and focus on winning the post-Warriors future.

Much of the league now plays the same style of ball — i.e. launching as many threes as possible — because 3 > 2 is as conventional as wisdom gets. Golden State and Houston make the new math look and feel marvelous. On the other hand, Game 7 between Denver and Portland featured two teams combining to make just six of 45 3-pointers. Everybody loves two heavyweights going the distance, but watching both miss haymaker after haymaker is no sweet science. There are limits to what’s possible when everybody zags.

Conventional wisdom appeared late in that Game 7. With Portland up three late, Denver inbounded. The Blazers, rather than risk giving up a game-tying 3-point attempt, fouled Nikola Jokic. It worked: he missed the first free throw, after which Portland’s Evan Turner hit a pair and that was that. The strategy worked. But seeing it happen was like watching someone spend five minutes parallel parking. Demeaning to observer and participant alike.

Society has no need for millionaire players chasing rings, nor billionaire owners exploiting them. The NBA exists because fans enjoy drama. In this most predictable of major American sports, the only thing that sells better than surprise is the possibility of it. Some teams don’t know when to quit, and thank God for that. Two are currently in the conference finals. Another was last year and could be again next.

The Blazers entered the postseason losers of 10 playoff games in a row. Conventional wisdom holds that a team led by two 6-foot-3 guards can’t win much. For a while, that looked to be the case, especially with their losing streak beginning after All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge left for San Antonio. In 2016 and 2017 Portland dropped eight of nine playoff games to the Warriors in two opening-round exits. Last year they finished third in the West but were again swept in the first round, this time by the New Orleans Pelicans. Lillard was completely outclassed by Jrue Holiday. The whispers to trade Dame or C.J. McCollum grew louder. But Portland, encouraged to zag, kept zigging.

On New Year’s Day they stood sixth in the West. A week before the All-Star break, they traded for Rodney Hood and signed Enes Kanter, went 19-6 the rest of the way and climbed to third. After a disappointing playoffs last season with Cleveland, Hood’s enjoyed his most productive postseason, nearly doubling his scoring while raising his 3-point accuracy from 17% to 38% and playing hero in Portland’s game three quadruple-overtime win vs. Denver.

Kanter got off to a slow start with the Blazers, then found his comfort zone, scoring double-digits in 12 of their last 15 games and pulling down 10+ boards with regularity the last three weeks of the season. He’s had a plus-rating in 12 of Portland’s 21 playoffs games and a negative in the other nine. Portland’s record this postseason? 12-9.

Two years ago Golden State lost only one playoff game; last year they dropped five. We’re midway through this postseason and they’ve already lost four. With Durant and DeMarcus Cousins working back from injuries, the Warriors don’t have their peak firepower or physicality. Hood or Kanter could swing a game or two for the Blazers. That’s how upsets happen.

Like the Blazers, the Toronto Raptors encountered an immovable object the prior three playoffs, dropping 10 straight to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.  Even after James left for the coast, conventional wisdom held that Toronto’s window was close to closing. While their three minutes leaders were all 28 or older, Boston and Philadelphia were blessed with youth and upside, plus superior trade chips. In a 2017 preview of this year’s Eastern Conference finals, the Raptors encountered the growing threat of Milwaukee firsthand, barely besting the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo, 22, in six games.

Nine days after James signed with L.A., the Raptors sent DeRozan to San Antonio in a deal for Kawhi Leonard. The potential reward was great, but so were the risks. Not only was Toronto going all-in on their first-ever Finals, to do so they’d traded away a fan favorite, franchise legend and Kyle Lowry’s BFF, along with a first-round pick and a developing 23-year-old center in Jakob Poeltl. They were risking it all on Leonard, a pending free agent who’d missed 73 games the year prior with a quad injury that sparked an irreversible break between he and the Spurs. If Toronto blew it up rather than keep the faith, they miss out on the greatest moment in franchise history.

No matter what happens against the Warriors, would Blazer fans trade Lillard’s series-winner vs. the Thunder to stockpile assets that might not matter till 2023?

Doubt it.

Perhaps no team has fallen from such great heights as Houston the past two years; a bounce or a whistle here or there and the Rockets could be working on back-to-back championships. Instead, bupkis. During Golden State’s title run, the West outside of Houston has won 10 games in 10 series against the Warriors. The Rockets have won seven in four. There’ll be pressure on them to do something drastically different, yet the hardest course may be the best — for them, for Boston (especially if Kyrie Irving returns), for Utah, for Oklahoma City, for Indiana. Portland and Toronto never gave up. Now they’re two of the last four teams standing. Not giving up before the job is done is pretty conventional. There’s wisdom in it, too.

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