by Marcel Mutoni

Going into game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, not too many people were giving the Portland Trail Blazers much of a chance (despite the fact that they had won 59 regular season games and featured some of the league’s best players). The Staples Center faithful certainly didn’t believe anything less than a trip to the Finals awaited their team; the Lakers didn’t seem to respect Portland too much, best exemplified by Phil Jackson’s permanent smirk; and NBC’s announcers were essentially treating the game as a foregone conclusion.

The Blazers must have sensed all of this, because they came out on an absolute tear. Before anyone knew what was happening, Portland had built a 15 point lead and looked like they were about to complete one of the great upsets in NBA history. No one on the Blazers could miss a shot: Damon Stoudemire, Scottie Pippen and Steve Smith led the attack from the outside (hitting three after three); while Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, and Bonzi Wells pounded the Lakers on the inside.

Going into halftime, boos could be heard all throughout Staples. No one could believe what was taking place. The Lakers had won 67 games during the regular season, and had made relatively quick work of the Kings and Suns in the previous playoff rounds. LA had an MVP in Shaquille O’neal, the league’s best young talent in Kobe Bryant, solid role players, and one of the most succesful coaches of all time in Jackson. There was no reason for them not to get out of the West and win a title. And yet, here they were, on the brink of a humiliating elimination on their home floor.

The struggle continued for Los Angeles in the second half, as the Blazers continued to assert their will. With about 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Blazers led by 15 and seemed to be on their way to the Finals. But suddenly and with no warning, momentum began to swing in LA’s direction. Brian Shaw hit a couple of bombs; Blazer shots in the lane were now being forcibly deposited into the stands by O’neal; Bryant wouldn’t let Pippen and Stoudemire breathe let alone run the offense (and whenever he found himself being guarded by the smaller Stoudemire, he simply abused him); the Staples crowd came alive; and the Blazers began falling apart.

In their panic, Portland went away from their game plan: shots were now being rushed, Bonzi stopped posting, Rasheed started missing five-footers, Mike Dunleavy was clearly being outcoached and the outcome seemed all but inevitable. There would be no historic upset. The only thing anyone would remember was just how close Portland had come to pulling off the impossible.

The game was essentially concluded with under a minute remaining on what was to become one of the signature moments in NBA Playoff history: Bryant broke Pippen with a right-to-left crossover at the top of the key, floated into the lane, and to the surprise of just about everyone in the gym, lobbed (instead of predictably shooting) the ball up to Shaq who boomed it with one hand. Staples became an absolute madhouse–with O’neal leading the charge. That potentially great Blazer team was in many ways destroyed by the play; they would never regain their swagger and would fail to live up to their considerable talents and expectations. As for the Lakers, it was evident that they would very soon be champions.

Bob Costas summed things up nicely as he is wont to do : “Back from the brink of elimination, to the brink of the NBA Finals!”

And to the brink of a dynasty.

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