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The 2014 Portland Trail Blazers blaze a trail to nowhere

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Horia Varlan | Flickr

Ed. Note: Evans Clinchy is a Bostonian and active member of the hoops blogosphere. He’s covered the Celtics for five seasons, with his writing appearing on CelticsBlogNESN, and SI (among other places). You can follow him, his thoughts, and his writing on Twitter. He wrote this piece after reflecting on the Portland Trail Blazers’ season.

The Portland Trail Blazers have arrived, but they haven’t; this postseason put them on the map, but it didn’t; this season was a success, but it wasn’t. After you’ve watched the events of the last three-plus weeks unfold, it’s hard to come away knowing exactly what to think. You want to believe that Damian Lillard’s buzzer-beater against the Rockets was a transformative moment, one that permanently established the Blazers as a bona fide Team That Matters in the Western Conference. But then you saw the bloodbath in San Antonio, and everything untransformed.

Sports are fickle when you fixate on the final result, and for much of the Blazers’ first-round series with Houston, it was unclear where they really stood. They quickly went up 2-0 and 3-1, but with three of the four games going to OT and all of them being decided in the final minute, there was always a razor-thin margin between victory and defeat. Yes, the Blazers were “ahead,” but what had they really achieved?

But then Lillard’s shot changed everything. As the Blazers’ second-year guard curled around a Wesley Matthews screen, met Nicolas Batum’s inbound pass in stride and sent it flying toward history, all in one fluid motion, it became clear that the franchise was Here To Stay. Forget about the Rockets and how they kept it close for six games – in 0.9 crystallizing seconds, we knew Houston was done. Portland owned this moment. There was finality, and confetti to prove it.

Given that last year’s Blazers had lost 49 games and this season wasn’t expected to be much better, Lillard’s shot appeared to solidify 2013-14 as an unqualified success – a heartwarming thing to see, since Portland hasn’t enjoyed many of those in its history. This is the same franchise that tried to build a championship nucleus with LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden and Brandon Roy; that could never get over the hump against the Shaquille O’Neal Lakers; that had one of the game’s all-time great talents in Arvydas Sabonis but never got to witness his best years; that drafted Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan; and that, the one time it actually did win a championship in 1977, watched a potential dynasty crumble amid injuries, most notably to Bill Walton. All of this is to say that in Portland, unqualified success doesn’t happen – qualified success is the norm. So to win a playoff series this year, when few in Rip City had expectations this lofty, appeared to be a feel-good story with not even a wee bit of feel-bad intermixed.

But man.

It’s hard not to think that the team’s demolition this May, at the hands of a historic basketball juggernaut in San Antonio, taints the team’s success at least a little bit. Lillard’s shot may have bought the Blazers two extra weeks that no one thought they’d have, but those sure were two ugly weeks.

They call it a Gentleman’s Sweep, but this five-game series was anything but gentlemanly for the Blazers. These games saw Aldridge forced into a litany of forced, pained, contested midrange jump shots; Lillard jacking up 23 3-pointers and missing 19 of them; and Tony Parker positively slicing and dicing the defense with an endless series of brilliant pick-and-rolls. Some five-game series are deceptively close – this was not that. Portland got housed.

Which is tough for the people of that city, because those fans care more about their team than pretty much anyone. They don’t just tune in casually from night to night in Oregon – they care passionately about the franchise’s long-term growth, and they live and die with each development, big or small.

This makes the team’s quest for greatness, quite possibly a Sisyphean one given the always-stellar opposition in the Western Conference, an agonizing one. One of the hardest steps to take in the NBA is the one from “very good” to great, and it’s difficult to figure how the Blazers can pull it off. Their entire team is under contract again next season, so personnel shake-ups are unlikely, and looking at the rest of the West, it also doesn’t look like any of their rivals are going anywhere. There’s always the chance that Lillard breaks out even more, emerging as a real MVP candidate, but that might be the team’s only hope.

This is what the Spurs’ brute-force awesomeness does to teams. It sends them into bouts of fear and self-loathing and existential crisis. It makes them wonder – what if this is it? What if we’ll never get any closer than this?

A couple of weeks ago, this season looked like a success for Portland, but now, it’s hard to say. In a league where championship contention is everything, a loss like this has a way of making you feel like nothing.

Hardwood Paroxysm