Slaughter: Expectations Exceeded

Brenden Slaughter Associate Sports Editor

There was a moment for me on Wednesday night where I sat back and told myself that I have never been more proud of a Blazer team. It was amidst the Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson video game-esque shots and the roar of Oracle Arena.

That moment came when the buzzer sounded and the Blazers’ season was over. I wasn’t upset. Quite the opposite, I was proud.

Now for reference, I didn’t feel this way when the Blazers were dismantled by the Memphis Grizzlies in last year’s playoffs. That team was discombobulated, and didn’t have the type of fan appeal that this one did.

The 2015-2016 Blazers not only defied expectations en route to a second round matchup with the defending champion Golden State Warriors, but also stole Rip City’s heart in the process. This group took the Portland fan base through a washing machine. The Blazers started the season looking like they were playoff contenders, jumping out to a quick 4-2 start. However, things hit rock bottom for the Blazers at Christmastime when they were 9-20, 11 games under .500 and sitting well below playoff contention.

But in typical washing machine fashion, the cycle changed and the Blazers went on an absolute tear. They went 33-18 over their last 51 games and launched themselves all the way up to the fifth seed in the Western Conference, setting up a matchup with the Clippers in the first round, which Portland would go on to win.

The Blazers advanced to the next round to play the Warriors, and every pundit pegged Portland as a team that didn’t belong and would be promptly swept by the defending champs.

Not these Blazers.

They gave the defending champs everything they can handle as they lost in five games.

Thompson said after game five that this might have been the closest five-game series of all time.

How could you argue with his logic? Subtract game one where the Warriors dominated from start to finish, the Blazers held a lead in every other game. But they couldn’t close the deal. The Warriors’ greatness proved to be just too much.

I said in my last column that I thought that the Blazers had a silver lining to the Western Conference Finals due to Curry’s injury, and it was a fair assumption. Until Curry’s return in game four, the Blazers looked poised to tie the series up 2-2 and force a game six in Portland. But the reigning MVP proved to be just too much as Curry’s presence was the end of the Blazers.

Sure, the season may be over, but this group of guys played their hearts out and extreme credit should be given for how they never quit and didn’t settle throughout the entire season. They could have quit when they were 11-20 in December, but didn’t. They could have quit when they were down 0-2 to the Clippers, but didn’t. They could have laid down and not tried in game five against the Warriors while down 3-1 in the series. But they didn’t.

This group of guys led by point guard Damian Lillard is a few years short of being special. No one on the Blazers roster except for veteran role player Chris Kaman is older than 25. No one except for Lillard had ever been a regular starter in their entire career, but it didn’t seem to matter, as they proved doubters wrong and left Rip City feeling accomplished.

However, the NBA is a business and the Blazers must now focus on how they can improve, so when they face off with the best of the west, they can come out victorious.

First things first, the Blazers need to get a deeper bench. Let’s look at the Warriors for example. They have a bench that consists of Finals MVP Andre Iguodala and reliable role players like Marreese Speights, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Anderson Varejao, and Ian Clark.

The Blazers have Allen Crabbe, Gerald Henderson and Ed Davis. That’s a big difference when trying to make it through the rigor of the NBA playoffs. The Warriors could go 10 deep if they wanted to in the series to keep legs fresh, compared to the Blazers who were playing their starters 40 plus minutes per game, which was noticeably affecting Lillard down the stretch. Now that they have proved that they are a reliable team in the Western Conference, they have to attract bench talent.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly the Blazers need to target a big time center who can be a rim protector and a reliable scoring option. No disrespect to Mason Plumlee, but he isn’t the type of player who is going to lock down the paint and give you a 20 point outburst every now and again. My best guess is that they target a scoring threat like Al Horford or Hassan Whiteside. Both guys would give Portland a scoring option down low and would also help them protect the paint better than they did all season.

There are even more targets that are long shots such as Kevin Durant or Harrison Barnes, but no matter what, the Blazers must make the calls. They aren’t a pushover or pretender in the Western Conference, and that is appealing to NBA veterans who want to get a ring.

If the Blazers can add the few missing links that would complete them, this team may be headed to an NBA Finals in just a few short years. Then, we’ll look back realize that this season was the foundation for a group of guys who wouldn’t quit, no matter the circumstances.

And it all started with team that was projected to win 26 games.

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