Only one team stood between the Trail Blazers and a trip to the NBA Finals. That team? The surprising Phoenix Suns. Phoenix had stunned the basketball world by defeating the defending Western Conference Champion Lakers, who posted an NBA-best 63 wins and showcased league MVP Magic Johnson, in five games. That meant they took two of three from Los Angeles in the Great Western Forum – an arena the Lake Show lost only four times in during the regular season. Portland needed to make sure they didn’t feel too cozy at the Coliseum as the Suns proved they’re road ready.
Over the span of the regular season, the two Pacific Division rivals battled tooth and nail with one another five times, with the Trail Blazers coming out victorious in three instances. But just like their seasonal matchups with San Antonio, the margin of victory for either team during those five contests was slim – just a miniscule 3.8 points separating winner from loser.
With Game One just two days after the emotional high of closing out the Spurs, Portland had no time to catch their breath after expending immense amounts of physical and mental energy on the series prior. On the other side, Phoenix had been handed a six-day rest due to their shorter bout with L.A. But would it be a gift or curse? Sure, the Trail Blazers were exhausted but they were sharp. And while Phoenix would be rested, would they be game ready after such a lengthy layoff?
Phoenix was indeed ready and put up a valiant effort but not even the shortest of layoffs could harness the breakneck Trail Blazers fast break attack. Portland just had too much speed and athleticism at all positions for Phoenix to compete with and left the Suns in the dust for a plus-16 advantage on the break (26-10). In the end, Portland prevailed once again at home, 100-98, behind double-doubles from Jerome Kersey (19 points, 11 rebounds) and Clyde Drexler (20 points, 10 rebounds) to take a 1-0 series lead.
Being the underdog was nothing new to these Suns. As the No. 5 seed, they already had to play on the road in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles in round’s previous. And each time Phoenix was able to split the first two games to reclaim home-court advantage. Early on in Game Two, it appeared they were destined to do so once more. The Suns jumped all over the Trail Blazers, leading by as many as 22 points in the second quarter, eventually taking a 59-41 lead into intermission. But these Trail Blazers just seemed destined to find a way to win in the Coliseum. Rallying around one another, Portland scorched the Suns’ defense for a series-high 41 points in the third – but the Suns still held a nine-point lead with 12 minutes left. After allowing 91 points through three quarters, the Trail Blazers decided to tighten it up on D.
Powered by the Portland crowd, the Trail Blazers dug deep and found a way to hold the dynamic Suns to only 16 points in the final frame. But with 30 seconds left, the scoreboard still read 106-103 in favor of the opposition. Catching fellow point guard Kevin Johnson by surprise, Terry Porter quickly stepped back for a deep 3-pointer from the wing to tie the game. Following a Phoenix free throw to give the Suns a one-point advantage, it was Porter once again rising to the challenge as his leaning floater from inside the paint hit bottom, giving the Trail Blazers the lead for good at 108-107. Portland cheated defeat once again at the Glass Palace to put a stranglehold on the series. The trio of Drexler, Kersey and Porter combined for 77 of the team’s 108 points, proving everyone outside of the Pacific Northwest that they are a force to be reckoned with.
For whatever reason, the Trail Blazers got into a bad habit of underperforming on the road. Just as they did the in San Antonio, Portland laid two eggs in the Valley of the Sun. Game Three saw a power outage from the usually high octane Trail Blazers who shot a terrifying 37-for-102 from the field as they mustered up only 89 points in their 34 point defeat. The 89 points was the lowest output of the postseason and fewest point total since an 82-point performance in Minnesota back on January 11th. Phoenix blitzed Portland 40-18 in the first period and never looked back. Their talented bench finally ignited for 42 points, nearly outscoring the Portland starters (47 points) in the process.
Game Four featured a classic point guard showdown between Kevin Johnson (28 points, 17 assists) and Terry Porter (21 points, 12 assists) going toe-to-toe with one another, but it was the Phoenix reserves who were once again the deciding factor, outscoring their Portland counterparts 31-10 to hold off the Trail Blazers 119-107. The loss away from home only fueled the fire from critics that the Trail Blazers couldn’t win away from the Memorial Coliseum. Portland now dropped to 1-5 in the postseason on the road, very uncharacteristic from a team that achieved a 24-17 record on the road – second best in the NBA during the regular season.
Portland was confident heading back home to the Rose City for Game Five, as they should have be. The Trail Blazers were an invincible 7-0 so far in these playoffs when playing in front of their rowdy fans. And that jolt of energy the maniacs gave them to start off Game Five ended up being the difference. Portland jumped out quickly in the first quarter, outscoring Phoenix 31-24; a lead they would hold on to the rest of the night. Behind Clyde Drexler’s do-everything night – 32 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, 1 block – the Trail Blazers moved one game closer to the NBA Finals, winning 120-114. Along with The Glide’s all-around effort, Portland got balanced scoring from all as every starter put up at least 15 points. And finally, the Trail Blazers were able to neutralize the sweet-shooting Eddie Johnson and athletic Dan Majerle, holding the Phoenix bench under 20 points for the first time since Game One.
With the Trail Blazers’ recent road woes, it appeared a seventh game was on the horizon. Portland lost in convincing fashion in each of their last five contests away from the “Crazy Coliseum.” So it was a forgone conclusion that the Suns would steam roll straight through the Trail Blazers, right? Wrong. Somebody forgot to pass that memo to the Portland Trail Blazers. But through three quarters, the story seemed to be playing out as expected: Phoenix winning each 12 minute interval to take an 89-84 lead into the fourth quarter. Despite the Suns camping out at the free-throw line, connecting 39 times in 48 tries and Jeff Hornacek’s series-high 36 points, the balanced Trail Blazers found a way to keep picking away at the deficit. Along with six Trail Blazers scoring in double-figures including some much-needed instant offense from Drazen Petrovic (11 points in nine minutes), Portland countered the Phoenix free-throw barrage by pounding them on the glass to the tune of a 53-44 advantage.
Still, the Trail Blazers found themselves trailing 109-106 with only 1:09 left on the clock. Apparently looking for the 3-point bomb from Portland, Phoenix’s interior defense went lax as Terry Porter took the ball into the teeth of the defense, drawing a foul and drilling two crucial foul shots at the line to trim the lead to a single point. But the Suns now had possession and the clock continued to tick, tick, tick, finally bleeding down under the 40 second mark; a game-changing play needed to be made. During this magical run the Trail Blazers were on, there was always someone ready at the whistle to make that play. As the shot clock wound down and Phoenix in desperation mode, Hornacek drove the lane, trying to float one up and in but Kersey had another idea. He met the ball at its peak, swatted it into the hands of Drexler who lead the break – never once thinking about slowing it down – and hit the trailing Kersey in stride to give the Trail Blazers a 110-109 lead with his smooth, reverse layup. Yet the clock still read 27.2 and Phoenix had the ball enabling them to nearly kill the entire clock before taking the final shot.
Another primetime defensive play was in order. In fitting fashion it was Buck Williams rising to the occasion. Portland’s premier offseason acquisition – known for defense, mental toughness and a high basketball IQ – just seizing the ball right from the grasps of Tom Chambers’ hands at the optimal moment to secure the victory. Clyde went on to knock down two at the line to make it academic. The Trail Blazers did the unthinkable, by defeating the Suns, on the Madhouse on McDowell, 112-109 to advance to their second NBA Finals in team history.
For the Trail Blazers, there would be another chapter to write in this dream season. They became only the third team since 1970 to have a losing record the year prior to making the Finals and the first since the 1978 Seattle Supersonics who went 40-42 during 1976-77 before winning it all the following year. Coincidentally enough, the 39 wins by the Trail Blazers in the 1989 campaign was the lowest win total of any team the year previous to making it all the way to the NBA Finals since those Trail Blazers of 75-76, who won a meager 37 games before shocking the world in 1977. BlazerManiacs everywhere were hoping the same story would repeat itself. But for that to happen, Portland would have to go through the defending NBA Champion Detroit Pistons, better known as the “Bad Boys”, and would have to do so without their vital home-court advantage.