The Portland Trail Blazers had a choice to make: 3rd or 4th seed? They could lose (or win with a Denver loss) and play the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs or win and take on the Oklahoma City Thunder instead.
They decided in dramatic fashion. Terry Stotts opted to rest his starters and use only 6 players, mostly 3rd/4th stringers in the final game of the season. He started Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr, Jake Layman, Skal Labissiere, and Meyers Leonard. Zach Collins came off the bench.
Fans reposed themselves in their seats at the Moda Center and reclined at home in their lazy boys, conceding to idea of a loss, with perhaps a drift of melancholy and disappointment. It appeared Stotts was opting to go for the loss and the 4th seed to face Utah. To some fans that seemed the safer plan. To others surrendering the final game, tanking, seemed contrary to Trail Blazer values.
The game started out with a little energy on Portland’s end before the Kings began to capitalize and build a lead. The closer to the end of the half, the worse things seemed to get. The Kings were on fire. They were hitting from outside, beating Portland inside at the basket. Getting the calls.
To be fair, fans weren’t expecting much of a game. By halftime the Kings had scored 87 points and led by 27. Blazer fans waved off the lopsided game and were talking the Utah Jazz series that seemed to be inevitably ahead, during the break. How do we stop Gobert? Are they gonna kill us from the arc? Donovan Mitchell is back in form.
When the 3rd quarter started Denver was losing, which meant 4th place anyway. The Blazers came out shooting. The Kings lead began to shrink. The whispers began. Can the Blazers come back? Can they win #53? At that point there seemed to be some strange energy in the air. A mix of inexplicable confusion and wonder that permeated in a buoyant fascination of possibility.
At the end of the third the Blazers were back within fifteen. All 6 players were having phenomenal games. Simons was hitting! Trent was hitting! Layman was hitting! The youngsters whether inspired by Denver losing, by Meyers Leonard homilizing, or perhaps a sense of opportunity, buckled down on defense. They clawed for rebounds. They stole balls like clockwork. They forced the King’s into mistake after mistake. They tore at the deficit.
The fans excitement was turning into exhilaration. It was tangible. It was fully intoxicating. Anyone watching knew they were being treated to something special. Something they would probably never see again. Then the world turned upside down. Denver made a run. Denver came back. Denver was leading.
STOTTS TAKE A TIMEOUT! Make a choice. 3rd or 4th seed? Make it wisely. Confusion abounded. Nausea roused itself. Panic kicked in. Oh the drama! The elation! The trepidation! The Blazers kept the lead. Denver won, locking in 2nd seed. The Trail Blazers seized the day. They made their decision. No tanking. No losing. Those six guys won the game 136-131.
Anfernee Simons finished with 37 points and 9 assists. The first player to do so in his debut game since Anthony Morrow. The first blazer rookie to do so in his rookie season since Damian Lillard. Skal Labissiere had 29 and 15. Trent, Layman, and Leonard finished with 19 points a piece. Collins had 13 points off the bench in 13 minutes.
Blazer fans celebrated in awe. They hugged and they danced. They daydreamed about the bright future of Anfernee Simons. A back to back third seed was unimaginable in such a packed western conference. Then it sunk in. Then they stopped on the spot. The Portland Trail Blazers had made their choice. They chose willingly to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 1st round of the playoffs. No qualms.
Many argued, but Utah would have been easier! Really? Gobert…easier? A hot as nails Donovan Mitchell. A hefty group of sharpshooters? A team that finished the season on a 13-3 run? No mam/sir. But, we lost the season series 4-0 to the Thunder! True. But, in the playoffs everything starts over. The Blazers chose to the face the music. If you are going to play and win in the playoffs, there is no room for fear or uncertainty.
The series will be intense like we have never seen. It will get nasty. These teams don’t like each other. The rivalry is strong. Ready yourself for a long, drawn out dog fight. Because it’s coming. For Sunday, the Trail Blazers play the Thunder in game 1, and the Moda Center is our house.