With their NBA playoff series against the Phoenix Suns squared at two games apiece and two of the remaining three games scheduled for their own court, the Portland Trail Blazers seemed to be sitting pretty in the Western Conference finals. But the way that the Blazers played in Games 3 and 4—getting blown out in Phoenix after winning the first two games in Portland by a total of only three points—wasn't such a pleasant sight at all.
In fact, Phoenix was well ahead on style points. While both clubs rely on the fast break for much of their offensive production, only the Suns got theirs going with any regularity—just as they had done in their 4-1 upset of the Los Angeles Lakers in the previous round. With fearless and peerless point guard Kevin Johnson penetrating at will, Phoenix led by as many as 46 points in Game 3 en route to a 123-89 rubout. Or, as Portland forward Jerome Kersey so aptly put it, "They controlled the game from the very onslaught." Game 4, a 119-107 Phoenix laugher, produced an almost like number of sneaker tracks across Blazer foreheads, with Johnson and forward Tom Chambers combining for 65 points. KJ also dished out 17 assists.
The Blazers, on the other hand, had been just good enough to win at home (100-98 on May 21, 108-107 after a 22-point comeback two days later), which, if they can keep it up, will be just good enough to win the best-of-seven series. Rip City, a phrase used by longtime Blazer radio man Bill Schonely for a home-team swish, is how Portland billed itself again this season. Schonely originated the phrase and made it most popular during the 1976-77 season, when Portland won the NBA title. In Games 1 and 2, Rip City might have been more aptly applied to the way the Blazers cleaned the boards than to their shooting prowess. For the most part, Portland's halfcourt offense looked like a game of tip H-O-R-S-E, with the Blazers muscling misfires back in off the offensive glass. But the Blazers always hustle madly and defend hungrily. "Our guys really believe that when times get tough, if they rebound and defend, they'll win," said Portland coach Rick Adelman.
The opening games in the Great Northwest were evidence of that belief and as exotic as your average Twin Peaks episode. The Blazers almost blew Game 1. After leading 98-93 with 2:59 to play, they turned the ball over twice, allowing Phoenix to tie it at 98-all with 1:09 to go. Another Portland turnover was followed by a KJ miss. The Trail Blazers then called upon irony and improbability. They copied Phoenix's bread-and-butter play, a pick-and-roll near the top of the key, as point guard Terry Porter dished to his screening center, Kevin Duckworth, who, despite a splint on his broken right hand, canned a 10-footer with 17.3 seconds left. Reserve guard Danny Young then made like a center to preserve the Portland win, blocking Mike McGee's desperate try from the corner with :05 on the clock. (It was only the 24th block of Young's six-year career.) After Blazer forward Buck Williams saved the loose ball, Portland retained possession until time expired.
Game 2 on Wednesday was downright weird. The Suns, who had relied on their jumpers while shooting only 41.3% in Game 1, got an aggression boost from reserve swingman Dan (Thunder) Majerle and drove the lane with impunity. The Blazers, by contrast, rested on their shaky outside game. Things were so bad for Portland that late in the second quarter, Blazer team photographer Art Gee was ejected by ref Jess Kersey for beefing about calls. Portland also got a technical foul for having only four players on the floor when Duckworth forgot to check in. The Blazers headed to the locker room at halftime trailing 59-41 and shooting 16 for 46 from the floor. The locker room door was not only closed, it was locked.
The halftime theme, according to Blazer guard Clyde Drexler, went something like this: "Hey, man, it's time to turn it up a little more." Adelman did that by scaling it down a little bit—that is, by deploying a small lineup midway into the third-quarter with four guards and the 6'7" Kersey at center. "My mind went back to Long-wood," said Kersey, referring to his own small-scale background at Longwood College in Farmville, Va., about 100 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. "I felt like I could be invincible out there and go after everything." Kersey's gentle visage and his hobby of collecting matchbooks—"I get them at restaurants to show people I really went there," he says—belie a full-throttle style that is indispensable to Portland, spiritually and physically. While his mite-sized, crowd-inspired teammates—in truth, the Blazers wouldn't have survived this game without their fans—harassed Phoenix into 10 turnovers after the break, Kersey pulled down nine second-half rebounds to complement his game-high 29 points.
"I thought we had enough to get back in it," Adelman said. "But I wasn't sure we'd have enough left when we did." After a 41-point third quarter, the Blazers trailed 91-82. With 50 seconds left in the fourth, they were behind 106-103. Phoenix went into its own pick-and-roll; Johnson slipped the ball to the rolling Tom Chambers for a likely dunk. But Kersey roared out of somewhere in central Virginia to swat the stuff away.
Portland then left matters up to Porter, whose pedigree from Wisconsin-Stevens Point is as obscure as Kersey's. Almost. "Longwood used to be a girls' school, so that's got me beat," Porter says. Although he is known mostly as a defender and passer, Porter's clutch shooting has made him Portland's fourth-quarter savior for three seasons and has repeatedly bailed the team out in these playoffs. With 28 seconds left, he nailed a three-pointer to make it 106—all. After Johnson hit one of two free throws on the other end, Porter slipped past KJ and floated in the lane for a 10-footer for a 108-107 lead with 12.7 on the clock. With time running out, Johnson got the ball to Eddie Johnson, who was standing at almost the same spot where McGee had been stifled in similar circumstances two nights before. This time Kersey rotated out to that coffin corner and forced EJ to rush his shot, which fell short. When Adelman went home that night, he found that one of the Portland faithful had planted a sign on his lawn: RICK CITY.
"We should have won the ball game—I don't mind saying that," said Sun coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "Porter stuck it in our face."
Last year in the Western finals, Phoenix went four-and-out against the Lakers. The current Suns seemed none too worried about another sweep, in part because they were playing the Trail Blazers, in part because they had not lost three successive games all season and in part because they have matured.
The Suns' Game 2 collapse festered a bit with KJ, who felt he hadn't held up his end. Both of Porter's last-minute shots had come against his defense, he had missed that free throw and, on the final offensive sequence, he had made a bad read of the defense and wound up on a disadvantageous side of the court. His anger, along with the Suns' steadiness and that old back-home magic, produced a textbook execution of fast-break basketball in the first quarter of Friday's Game 3. The Suns clogged the lane and dared the Blazers to shoot from the outside. Rip City became Brick City, and with each miss, KJ was off and roaring at the backpedaling Blazers.
By the end of the quarter, Phoenix had hit 18 of 23 shots from the floor (13 of the field goals were chippies) and led the Blazers 40-18. By halftime, the Suns were up 71-43, and Adelman's biggest second-half correction was reminding the Suns' public-address announcer that Porter's given name is not Kevin, that Porter being the former NBA playmaker and three-time league leader in assists. Both Porter's and Drexler's shooting percentages receded as far as their hairlines; between them, they missed 15 of 22 shots. Meanwhile, the Suns starters shot 83.3%. KJ harked back to the first half of Game 2. "We knew we had the ability to do that again—it wasn't a fluke," he said. "We just had to do it for 48 minutes." In this case, 24 proved to be enough.
Tie Suns' victory in Game 4 on Sunday may have been less convincing, but it was impressive in another sense. Portland, the league's best rebounding team, was crushed on the glass 48-36, which allowed KJ to reload the Suns' explosive attack. Phoenix also released Chambers as soon as the Blazers attempted a shot. Williams, Chambers's primary defender, was often left under the basket while Chambers charged alone upcourt for his thrashing, ambidextrous drives. "Buck's a rebounder, he's going to the boards," said Chambers. "I'm getting a head start on him."
When the Blazers had the ball, Chambers gave Kersey space to shoot from the outside, which he did ably, canning 14 of 20 shot attempts for a game-high 29 points. But Kersey got to the line just once, failed to grab even one offensive rebound and sat most of the third quarter with foul trouble, clearly frustrated. "If you don't make the Suns play defense, they're going to run at you all night," Kersey said. "You go to the basket against them, most of the time something good will happen. You don't, you're just bailing them out, because they're not a great defensive team." What they lacked in skill, however, the Suns made up for in will. In Phoenix, at least, they outhustled the Blazers, thanks particularly to Majerle, who had just another typical Day of Thunder with 18 points and 10 boards.
As the series swung back to Portland, Adelman was left to ponder some strategy that would get his open-court offense untracked. When the Blazers weren't pushing the ball up the court, the effectiveness of Portland's two most prodigious scorers was minimized. For the series, Drexler was shooting 43.9%. As for the Suns, they were wondering if, after snapping their long losing streak in L.A. (21 games before a Game 1 victory) in the conference semis, they could do the same at Portland (19 games and counting) to catapult to the NBA Finals. "We were so close up there before," said Majerle, looking forward to Game 5, scheduled for May 29. "It's just a matter of playing two good halves of basketball." Portland could only hope its faithful crowd would have the last say, again.