Trail Blazers fight to the finish, primed for future battles

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Long after most opponents usually lose their footing against the Golden State Warriors' wave of bombs and ballet, the Portland Trail Blazers never stopped delivering counterpunches at Oracle Arena in Game 5.

A step-back 3-pointer from Stephen Curry that vaulted the Warriors on top in the third quarter was answered by timely shots from Al-Farouq Aminu and Allen Crabbe. As a Curry layup dropped through the net to an eruption from the crowd midway through the fourth to put the Dubs up eight, Damian Lillard grabbed the remains and heaved a long pass to Crabbe on a fly pattern to launch a 7-0 late Portland run. A dagger 3 by Curry with three minutes to go was nonchalantly smoothed off by a C.J. McCollum 3 on the other end.

There was no give, no surrender of spirit, no inkling that a patchwork team of mid-major guards and young castaways from around the league wasn’t supposed to push the defending champs, fresh off an historic 73-win season, into precarious late-game situations time and again in the conference semifinals. The Trail Blazers ultimately dropped Game 5, 125-121, and the series to Golden State, but following the final horn, there was near unanimity on both sides that the Portland Trail Blazers played one hell of a series.

“We should be proud of the way that we pushed them, because they could have easily been [in] a seven-game series,” Lillard said. “The growth part is the biggest thing for us, and I think we can not only grow a lot from this entire season, but really from this series.”

At the podium in Portland following the Warriors’ overtime win in Game 4 on Monday, Warriors forward Draymond Green pronounced the Trail Blazers “done.” Asked if he had respect for them, he told the room to check back with him on Wednesday.

Forty-eight hours later, Green issued his verdict.

“So just looking at this series and seeing 4-1, it didn't feel like that,” Green said. “It was a very tough series. I gained a lot of respect for those guys because the way they fought, obviously behind Dame's and C.J.'s lead, and the way everybody else filled in -- whether it was Crabbe coming off the bench stepping up huge, and Aminu had a huge series, Moe Harkless stepped up, everybody stepped up. So I'm happy to be finished with this series.”

The Trail Blazers didn’t merely make an appearance this postseason; they made a statement. Their efforts in Game 5 and those that came before it in the series represent a near-perfect portrait of Portland’s season: Virtually every player in the rotation embraced, then excelled in his designated role.

Lillard sculpted the team in his image -- competitive, humble and with a high emotional IQ. McCollum filled the vacuum left on the other side of the floor and made it his own. His 16-point fourth quarter might have been his introduction to a national audience, but the Trail Blazers were well-acquainted with his uncanny shot-making and body control.

Down the roster, it was the same. Aminu made his bones as a combo forward and a weakside shooter who can drain a 3-pointer. Harkless served as an all-purpose forward who can defend multiple positions, knows where to be on the basketball court and, like Aminu, can occasionally connect from long range. Crabbe, name-checked by Green, drained five 3s to cap a season in which he established himself as a legit 3-and-D wing. Ed Davis did fine work as the only conventional big in the rotation, Mason Plumlee as the energetic, play-making big, and Gerald Henderson, the graybeard of the operation at 28, provided the veteran savvy.

The Trail Blazers insist to a man and coach that they always saw themselves as a playoff team this season. But nobody could fault a skeptic for believing that a team returning only one starter and featuring not a single rotation player over 28 years of age was destined for the lottery. However confident Portland might have been that it was going to play well into May, this season qualifies as a wild success for the Trail Blazers.

“Regardless of what other people expected, I think what we were able to do was reassure ourselves that the foundation that we built this year is the right thing,” Lillard said. “We did it the right way, and that's what allowed us to be in this position. So we've got to continue to work and continue to grow that same thing and do the same things that we have been doing all season long and try to continue going forward.”

They did it on a shoestring, as well: $51 million doesn’t buy a team much in the modern NBA, but the front office accumulated a collection of low-risk, high-reward young players who each found a well-designed role. Yet the more a team like the Trail Blazers overperforms expectations on a dime, the more complicated the task of retaining players at a reasonable rate becomes in the offseason that follows. Suffice it to say, next season’s payroll in Portland will be considerably pricier than $51 million.

This isn’t a problem for Portland. They have an owner who has demonstrated a willingness to spend, and about $22 million in cap room if they renounce Henderson, but hang onto their rights to match offer sheets on their young group of free agents -- Meyers Leonard, Harkless and Crabbe. They can fish in free-agent waters for a paint presence and other opportunities to upgrade their roster -- and still have the flexibility to match on the others if they care to. Leonard will be an interesting choice for the front office, because he’s likely to command starter money, even though he currently has the résumé of a rotation big. But these are smaller questions in what’s become a much more exciting project in Portland.

The Trail Blazers have done well with house money this postseason, even factoring in the couple of blown opportunities against the Warriors in Games 2 and 4 -- and on Wednesday night, to some extent. In the evolution of any young team that matures into a perennial playoff fixture, there's that first foray into the postseason that can be looked back on as a reference point (see: The Thunder’s strong showing against the Lakers in the spring of 2010). If Prime Lillard Era grows into something special in Portland, these past three weeks will be the culmination of a compelling opening chapter.