After exorcising their own playoff demons in the first round against Dallas, the Trail Blazers faced the unenviable task of taking on the Midwest Division champion San Antonio Spurs, a team that also breezed their way through the first round by sweeping the Nuggets. The two teams met four times in the regular season, with Portland coming away victorious in three of the four contests.
Although the Trail Blazers took the season series from the Spurs, the margin of victory in those four games was a mere 3.75 points and those results took place with a healthy Kevin Duckworth in the lineup for Rip City. This time around, Portland wouldn’t be so lucky to have Big Duck drawing “The Admiral” away from the paint with his devastating mid-range jumper after he fractured his right, shooting hand in Game Three against Dallas. But what the Trail Blazers now lacked in size, they made up for with home-court advantage. A trip to the Western Conference Finals ran through the Rose City and if the Spurs wanted to advance, they’d have to defeat the Trail Blazers and their BlazerManiacs in the “Crazy Coliseum,” where Portland lost only five times at during the regular season.
With his only seven-footer on the sidelines, Coach Rick Adelman turned to 6-10 rookie Cliff Robinson for the start in Game One. In a defense by committee approach, Robinson, Buck Williams and Wayne Cooper each took their turn defending the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. Along with help defense from the wings, Portland flustered David Robinson, holding him under double digits in scoring for just the second time all season (9 points, 3-11 shooting). With Robinson a non-factor, the Trail Blazers, behind Jerome Kersey’s game-high 25 points and 16 rebounds, blew by the Spurs, 107-94.
Fortunately for Portland, Game Two wasn’t scheduled for another three days, giving their nine-man rotation much-needed time to catch their breath. It would take another solid team outing for Portland to walk away with a commanding 2-0 series lead. And that’s exactly what they got. Even with the duo of Terry Cummings and David Robinson torching the nets for 64 points (26-40 shooting), they were no match for an aggressive, balanced Trail Blazers attack. Portland found themselves at the charity stripe a then-franchise record 51 times and abided by Bill Schonely’s philosophy – “You’ve got to make your free throws” – by converting 43. Six Trail Blazers tallied double digits in scoring, led by their rising star, Terry Porter, whose 27 points helped Portland cruise past the Spurs once again, 122-112.
Games Three and Four took a much different turn for Portland. Without their fans ready to energize them at any moment’s need, the depleted Trail Blazers succumbed to the heavy minutes and mental burden of a seven-game series grind, losing handily in each contest (121-98 in Game Three, 115-105 in Game Four). San Antonio knew this and blitzed Portland at every opportunity, taking advantage of a short layoff time in between games. Instead of two full days of rest Portland received before Game Two, they only had one before Game Three, which was reserved for a long flight to the Alamo City.
To make matters worse, another Trail Blazer big fell victim to the injury bug. Center Wayne Cooper experienced back spasms during Game Three, forcing him to miss the next three games. Just as quickly as the 2-0 series lead came, it vanished in the bat of an eye. As Terry Porter said, it was “gut-check time.”
With 12,666 fans in the Glass Palace acting as a sixth man on the floor, the Trail Blazers stampeded through the Spurs in the first-half, taking a 19-point lead into intermission. But as we’ve all seen throughout history, teams always have that one major run left in them, and while it’s more than a daunting task to maintain a lead of that size for a full 48, doing so with only eight bodies suited up increases the difficulty exponentially. Although Portland held a 12-point lead heading into the final 12 minutes of action, they weren’t able to hang on. Not even a scripted movie could have played out what would happen next. Down three late in the game, San Antonio reserve forward David Wingate – who was 0-13 from 3-point land throughout the regular season – launched a leaning 3-pointer from the left wing which saw nothing but nylon, sending this incredible battle into overtime.
Maybe a few other Trail Blazers teams would have folded given the current situation, but the addition of Buck Williams instilled a never-say-die attitude among the players. With Terry Porter shooting lights out from behind the arc (5-for-9) and Clyde Drexler slashing to the goal, the Trail Blazer backcourt helped Rip City overcome the odds and attrition (three starters over 48 minutes). The two soon-to-be household names combined for 73 points, as opposed to their San Antonio equivalents’ (Rod Strickland, Willie Anderson) 34 points. And in what is still recognized as one of the greatest playoff games ever, the Trail Blazers outlasted the Spurs in double overtime, 138-132.
Again with only one day off between games and no home crowd to push them onward, the Trail Blazers came out with dead legs, losing easily 112-97. Nobody for Portland was able to carry the torch on this night and when your superstar (Drexler) goes 1-for-10 shooting for four points – chances for a win are slim to none, and slim just left town. But there was hope for Portland. Game Seven would be played at the Memorial Coliseum where the Trail Blazers outscored the Spurs on average 122-113 through three games compared to being outscored 116-100 in HemisFair Arena.
Just 18 days after fracturing his hand, Kevin Duckworth miraculously emerged out of the tunnel for warm-ups to a roaring standing ovation. Duck’s unforgettable Game Seven return gave the Trail Blazers a mental boost heading into the biggest game of their lives. In 35 minutes of action, Duck performed admirably, scoring six points, grabbing five rebounds, and dishing out four assists. Along with Cooper’s return, the fresh Trail Blazer bigs were able to contain David Robinson to a sub-par 7-for-21 shooting. Even with all of this in their favor, Portland still saw their dream season hanging in the balance as the Spurs held a seven-point lead with just 2:34 to play.
But then, Portland caught lighting in a bottle on three straight possessions. Kevin hit his patented free-throw line jumper. 97-92. Clyde pulls up from three on the fast break. 97-95. Kersey finishes a hammer dunk in the face of Robinson aided by Porter’s penetration. 97-97. Overtime would decide the outcome…as if this series could be any more climatic.
For the first four and a half minutes of overtime, it was a back and forth affair with neither team giving an inch – until Strickland threw what is simply known as “The Pass”. An errant and unnecessary no-look pass found the hands of Kersey who flung it ahead to Drexler on the breakaway, resulting in an intentional foul, sealing Portland’s fate. Portland went on to hit five free-throws down the stretch to defeat San Antonio, 108-105.
Everything was in full bloom for the Rose City. Not only did Portland advance to the conference finals for the first time since winning it all in 1977, but the No. 5 seed Suns did the unthinkable by knocking off arch-rival and No. 1 seed Lakers in stunning, five-game fashion. This meant one thing to the players and fans: home-court advantage. Portland was riding high in the Coliseum, winners of six straight in the post-season and looking for their ticket to the ever-elusive NBA Finals.