Dane Delgado

Why Damian Lillard's game-winning shot over the Thunder could be the thing that holds the Blazers together

Why Damian Lillard's game-winning shot over the Thunder could be the thing that holds the Blazers together

There was less than a second left. Nine tenths of a second, to be exact. To the right of me was Portland writer Mike Acker. To my left, Dustin Hawes, then a member of the Portland Trail Blazers social media team. Stationed at the top of the 100 level, directly behind the Blazers basket, we stood braced for what would become the biggest moment for the franchise since winning the NBA draft lottery in 2007.

Then it happened. The whistle blew, the play began. Streaking across the 3-point line, open by a margin so wide it had to be a mirage, was Portland’s star point guard. He clapped three times, caught the ball, and released.

After the leather found the net, and the horn sounded, the adage of “there’s no cheering in the press box” was thrown out the window. This was no time for decorum. It was time to hug, embrace, and jump. First with Mike, then with Dustin. Then back to Mike. It felt like it lasted forever, even though it happened in the blink of an eye.

But this? This was bigger.

Damian Lillard’s shot on Tuesday night to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder and send the Trail Blazers into the second round was a massive moment for this franchise. Whatever we are going to call it — The Shot 2.0, The Wave, The Bad Shot, 37 — we have to recognize what it means for the Blazers to advance to the next round in this fashion.

Lillard has cemented himself as one of the top point guards in the league, both with his offensive prowess and his ability to come up big on defense. Driving to the gym on Wednesday morning, I found myself switching the dial back and forth between multiple national radio broadcasts. Each deep, hair-gelled voice was talking about the Blazers, Lillard, the wave, and the shot. It was surreal. 

But all this attention belies the fact Portland was in a bad way heading into this season. 

After being swept by the New Orlean Pelicans last year, the team seemed on the verge of flying apart, the centrifugal force of the churning NBA season too much for them to bear. 

These playoffs, the very ones that started just 10 days ago, held something potentially franchise-altering before they began. Latent beneath the surface was the fact that, if this postseason went like the two that came before it, things were headed for change in Rip City.

But, here the Blazers are. 

Terry Stotts, once a potential candidate to be released from his duties, now has the bargaining power to extend his stay with Blazers past his contract end date of 2020. Stotts has won two Coach of the Month awards this season, and those around the league hold him in high regard for his work in Portland. At this point, rather than deciding whether to keep Stotts, the team’s problem might be fending off other suitors impressed with his ability to adapt and gameplan in the postseason.

Now more than ever, it seems unlikely that GM Neil Olshey will field any offers for CJ McCollum, who slowly came on during the course of the season in his new role and was a big part of why the Blazers played so well against the Thunder in the first round. McCollum made several big shots down the stretch for Portland, and the Blazers no longer seem susceptible to a critical weakness being exploited.

The ripple effect from Lillard's series-ending shot continues on from there. With confidence in the backcourt pairing at an all-time high, so too is support for role players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, and Evan Turner. All of them contributed in one way or another on Tuesday, regardless of their impact on the box score.

And that's the real story of Damian Lillard's big shot. 

The history books will spin tales of his bold, 37-foot bomb. But the recovery of the Blazers to come back from a deficit, including an 8-0 run starting with three-and-a-half minutes to go in the fourth quarter, was a team effort.

It was a hard close by Seth Curry on Dennis Schroder with 3:15 to go. It was Aminu coming over for what would have been a block on Westbrook when Lillard took a charge with 1:55. It was McCollum calling out the Thunder play with 1:30 so that everyone could react accordingly, eventually resulting in a Blazers rebound. It was Curry going for the steal and forcing a turnover with 1:13 on George.

Damian Lillard's shot is going to go down as one of the most incredible individual accomplishments in NBA history. No player has hit two game-winning shots to end a playoff series in NBA history. He has already written his own name into the annals of league lore. But Lillard’s shot casts a special light on the value of his teammates, and worked as a credit to his coaching staff. 

Yes, Lillard’s shot won the series. But it might also have saved this version of the Trail Blazers as we know them. Not even Damian’s shot against the Rockets had that big an impact. 

This Portland team is going to look different next season no matter what. Aminu, Curry, and Kanter are all major contributors who are not under contract next season. Stotts’ position is up in the air. Olshey’s deal ends in 2021. Which come back and which leave has yet to be decided, but beating the Thunder is a vote for the idea that, hey, this core might actually work. 

This team that has always been criticized for not changing enough from season to season. Now, ironically, things could stay the same more than ever, all thanks to one of the coldest game-winners in NBA playoff history.

That brings us back to 0.9, and the Houston series, and a core that Portland decided to eventually let go. In fact, Lillard’s 2014 shot came on the cusp of a team that did eventually break up. Just a year after 0.9, much of Portland’s roster was gone.

This time, Lillard’s shot could be the thing that holds the Blazers together.

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Three things the Blazers have done right and three things to watch out for vs. OKC

Three things the Blazers have done right and three things to watch out for vs. OKC

The Portland Trail Blazers are leading the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-0 in their first-round series and everything looks rosy in the Rose City. But the series now switches to Oklahoma and Chesapeake Energy Arena is no easy place to play. 

The Blazers find themselves in an interesting position, particularly given the late-season injury to Jusuf Nurkic. That anybody predicted they would be up on the Thunder at this juncture would be a stretch, even given Paul George's shoulder injury.

Over the first two games the Blazers have looked like the better team, and by a significant margin. With that, it’s time to look at three things that have gone right for Portland, and three things that they’ll need to watch out for moving forward.

Damian Lillard’s defense

Damian Lillard has been incredible on the defensive side of the ball in this series, agitating Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder. The Blazers PG posted a regular season defensive rating of 112, but he’s ratched that down to just 95.

Lillard has been particularly adept at using his left hand to swat at the ball, which is part timing and part film study. It’s led to several outright steals, not to mention poke aways and swipes down on the basketball during drives.

If Portland’s going to continue to be this impressive on defense, Lillard is going to have to be a part of it. Luckily he’s been whacking away possessions, blocking shots, and mucking up passing lanes during the first two games.

Blazers defense

Lillard’s defense is a part of a bigger picture that folks haven’t really talked about yet. Terry Stotts and his staff appear to have put together a clear defensive plan around one tenant: unless it’s Paul George, don’t jump on any Thunder wing’s 3-point attempt.

Portland has taken to actively rushing to the 3-point line against OKC — Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, and all the Blazers backcourt have been seen sprinting hard on close outs — but when defenders arrive they’ve taken to getting low and protecting against the dribble drive.

It’s part of the reason the Thunder have shot just 16.4 percent from the arc, far and away the worst mark of any team in the playoffs. George’s shoulder has played its part as well, but make no bones about it — the Blazers have a gameplan, and it’s working.

Portland’s shooting

The Blazers have been the second-best team in these playoffs in terms of 3-point shooting percentage, and are fifth in made 3-point attempts. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have led the way in that respect, and Seth Curry has provided quite the spark off the bench.

The Thunder just haven't been able to contain Portland's long-range gunners, and both Lillard and McCollum have put up shots from deeper than perhaps OKC would have predicted.

Oklahoma City has declined in large part to double-team either player, much the way teams have in the postseasons past. That's allowed some more freedom for Lillard and McCollum, and the Blazers have made the Thunder pay dearly. 

Oklahoma City doesn't have the confidence in its roster to double-team the Blazer guards and still contain the rest of the Portland offense effectively. That's played right into the Blazers’ hands, and should continue unless Billy Donovan somehow comes up with a more athletic forward who can switch on to either guard. 

Westbrook’s determination

After Game 1 Russell Westbrook appeared to be mopey. After Game 2, Westbrook was energized.

The former NBA MVP said that he took full responsibility for the loss in Game 2, and it seems like he isn't going to let things stand as they head back onto his home court.

Oklahoma City hasn't used its home court advantage quite the way that seems like Portland or Denver have this season, but Westbrook is certainly more dangerous. He’s a better scorer at home, and shoots 1.3 additional attempts at the free-throw line per game at Chesapeake than away. That disparity could play a difference in a tight playoff game.

And remember, Westbrook and Lillard have a history. The Thunder guard once trash-talked Lillard by telling him that he’d “been busting that ass for years”. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and Westbrook is poised to go off like a bomb. 

Paul George’s shoulder

George didn't exactly have a poor game to start the series, but he did look susceptible to blocks by Moe Harkless. Put simply, he wasn't quite himself.

George has shot no better than 28.6 percent from the 3-point line in any game this series, and that's been a huge issue for Oklahoma City. George is by far and away the most important 3-point shooter the Thunder have on their roster, both in terms of made threes and 3-point percentage, and he has more than twice the made threes than the next closest Thunder in Dennis Schroder. 

That brings us to George's shoulder. The Thunder star looked much better in Game 2, and if he's ready to play at a higher level and feeling less pain, that could spell trouble for the Blazers. If George comes back as a relevant 3-point shooter, that will change the geometry of the floor for Portland's defense in a major way.

Evan Turner as a non-factor

Turner did not have a good March but he came on strong in the five games Portland played in the month of April. As the season came to a close, it seemed that Turner would play a large role in the playoffs as one of the Blazers’ most important players and as the leader of the second unit.

But Turner has played sparingly, logging just 16 minutes in Game 1 and 11 minutes in Game 2. He hasn't made an impact in the box score, and his plus-minus has been nominal.

Portland is firing on all cylinders right now — on both sides of the ball — but the strength of this team outside of Damian Lillard has been its bench. Turner is one of the big reasons for that and when the Blazers eventually face adversity against this Oklahoma City team, they're going to need him to show up and journey forward.

The Xs and Os of Damian Lillard's defense of Russell Westbrook

The Xs and Os of Damian Lillard's defense of Russell Westbrook

Damian Lillard has been excellent on defense this postseason. Having seemingly flipped a switch, Lillard has posted a 95 defensive rating in the playoffs, in stark contrast to his regular season mark of 112. 

The Portland Trail Blazers haven't hid Lillard, either, with Rip City's favorite son often guarding former MVP Russell Westbrook much of the time.

Portland's overall strategy and energy on defense has fundamentally changed as a team. Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, and Evan Turner are all more active, and it appears Terry Stotts and his staff have given them a mandate: close out hard, stay grounded, and don't bite. In essence, it's OK if anyone outside of Paul George takes a less-than-contested 3-pointer, just as long as no one gets into the paint.

That's been the base for Lillard’s strong start. He's played strong, low, and has moved his feet backward even when that seems counterintuitive. The Blazers PG has looked more confident, and he’s been able to get under the shirt of several Thunder players outside of Westbrook.

The biggest thing Lillard has done, shockingly, is come up with steals, swipes, and blocks in volume we've never seen from him before. That's thanks to a nifty move with his left hand that's made it seem like a trick he's waited to break it out until the postseason.

Watch the video above to see how Lillard's used his new move, plus played "spy" on George as a means to supercharge Portland's defense.

How Rodney Hood has ramped up his offense for the playoffs

How Rodney Hood has ramped up his offense for the playoffs

We've seen some great performances by Portland Trail Blazers wings recently, including a career game from Al-Farouq Aminu, a late-season push from Moe Harkless, and steadily increasing play from Rodney Hood. 

Circumstances have been different for each of these players, but all three of them will be increasingly important for Portland as they move toward the playoffs without Jusuf Nurkic.

After an unsteady start to his season with the Blazers, Rodney Hood has come on strong in the final month of the year and there are a few good reasons for that. 

Watch the full breakdown above to see the two reasons why Hood has been able to get comfortable with his offense right when Portland needs him most.

Three things for Trail Blazers fans to look forward to as the regular season wraps up

Three things for Trail Blazers fans to look forward to as the regular season wraps up

Portland fans might naturally be down about the state of this Trail Blazers team. CJ McCollum doesn't look like he's ready to return in time for the start of the playoffs (if at all) and of course, Jusuf Nurkic is out with a broken leg.

Nurkic was arguably the second most important player on the Blazers this season. While some might have had Portland moving into the second round as a dark horse candidate this year, those hopes seemed dashed once Nurkic fell in the second quarter of that game against the Brooklyn Nets.

But this season has also been a wonder, and Terry Stotts has once again lead this squad to more than 50 wins. It's the third time in Stotts’ time with the team that Portland has crossed that mark, and fans are still showing up and cheering their hearts out as the season comes to a close.

For that reason, it only seems fair to point out what we can look forward to as the Blazers move into the postseason.

Here's three things to be excited for as Portland moves toward Game 82.

Terry Stotts keeps coming up with wrinkles

Stotts has made himself a coach of the year candidate this season simply by being more amenable to change. The sometimes hard-headed Stotts has expanded his lineup over the course of the year, not just from necessity of the roster but also because the team needed to expand past where it’s been in seasons past.

Stotts has gone deep with this rotation, particularly in the addition of Jake Layman, Seth Curry, Zach Collins, and Rodney Hood. His rotating bench squad that has worked its tail off to become a productive contributor of the bottom line for Portland, and Stotts has nurtured that expertly.

Even Stotts’ tired old Flow offense has received some tweaks this season. CJ McCollum is in a new role this year as a more pure shooting guard with the first unit, and Evan Turner is now the de facto point guard on the bench.That's culminated in additional options off of the same types of sets, like we saw with this Pistol series that helped the Blazers get a win against the Minnesota Timberwolves (not to mention Turner’s first triple-double).

Perhaps nobody would say it, but with Stotts’ as attachment to wiley veterans and his shortened rotation, there was some question about whether he could adapt to the growing expectations for this team as he approached eight years in Rip City. Stotts has done his duty in that regard, and fans should be happy to have him back next year and beyond.

That is, if he wants to come back

The bench mob

First, let's just point out that this bench squad is as deep as the Blazers have seen in some time. Portland has always been a top-heavy team, and the problem with that has been the issues that come with starting two small scoring guards as the main stars.

Although some of the advanced statistics haven't individually improved all that much for guys like Turner, others including Layman, Curry, Hood, Kanter, and Collins have all contributed in a way that is extremely useful for Portland when viewed in the aggregate.

No longer is this team susceptible to big swings when its stars check out, which is even more of a wonder given that Stotts decided to pair Damian Lillard and McCollum together more often this season. In fact, when that plan was announced at the start of the year, it seemed like a potential weak point for opponents to attack.

Instead, this bench mob is the ultimate team unit and just about anyone can score at any time without there being much of an ego about when, or who.

Plus, these guys are just fun dudes to watch and to cheer for. You have to love them, and that's something that Portland fans have clung tight to over the past decade-and-a-half. Turner’s the cut-up, the bench celebrations are great, and everyone roots for their teammate without an air of perfunctory obligation.

Portland fans love to root for their bench players. For perhaps the first time in a while, these Blazers backups are worthy of their praise.

Damian Lillard is a damn monster

Lillard’s advanced statistics as an individual haven't jumped all that much. In fact, according to Cleaning the Glass, he isn't really separating himself within his peers at his position. 

Lillard’s usage, shooting, VORP, PER, points, free-throw rate — all of these things look pretty similar to last season, give or take a few ticks up or down. 

But if you've watched Lillard this season, you know just how big of a impact he’s had.

This team would not be what it is without Lillard, which goes without saying. But I think we’ve ventured into the territory of not understanding just how special it is to watch this guy play each and every night. Indeed, looking at some of his on/off numbers tells the story a bit clearer on Lillard.

The Blazers are up 3.5 points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the floor over last season, and a whopping four free-throw attempts per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood, per pbpstats.com. That could have something to do with McCollum as well, but the point is that Lillard has a significant impact that can't be underrated.

Winning games is nice, but the amount that Lillard has stepped up his game and the fact that he is a guaranteed lock for the All-Star Game each and every season from here on out speaks to just how special it is to have a player like him in Rip City.

This season could feel much bleaker than this, but the combination of smart coaching, a bench that has bought in, and a legitimate superstar should keep Portland fans coming back to watch this team in the postseason no matter what happens or what their odds may be. 

How one action helped Evan Turner get his first triple-double as a Portland Trail Blazer

How one action helped Evan Turner get his first triple-double as a Portland Trail Blazer

Evan Turner's triple-double against the Timberwolves was the culmination of just about everything we've talked about right here on this video series this year. There were split cuts, pistol action, and continued wrinkles that kept the defense guessing. 

Turner played like a blacktop veteran in this game — he got the ball out on the break, he backed guys down in the post.. hell he even hit a reluctant 3-pointer in the corner.

One play in particular stood out to me, and it was one where Turner didn't even score. It came early in the fourth quarter, but it was set up by a couple of other plays involving Turner earlier in that game.

Like a football team running the ball to set up play action, Terry Stotts kept having Turner and Jake Layman run iterations of Portland's pistol step play all game long, and it paid off big time. It culminated in a final hockey assist-style 3-pointer that put the Blazers within one point, sparking the run in the fourth that regained them the lead and won them the game.

Check out the video breakdown above to see the the two setup plays and the Layman 3-pointer it all led up to.

Where do the Blazers go with Jusuf Nurkić out for the season?

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USA Today Images

Where do the Blazers go with Jusuf Nurkić out for the season?

Okay, now what?

Jusuf Nurkić is out for the season, yet another Portland Trail Blazers big man betrayed by his lower extremities. His left tibia and fibula have been tossed like logs on the fire fueling the narrative that this team has been, and always will be, snakebit.

To that end, Trail Blazers fans experienced the loss of Nurkić in different ways. Few with optimism. Some with fear. Many with despair. All with emotion. But this also felt different, more disparate than the likes of Oden, Bowie, and Walton. 

Whereas those players were ones with a history of injury, of greatness cut down at its peak, or of great potential never realized, Nurkić’s plight comes from the other end of the spectrum. What was this Blazers team expected to do this season? Was the bench supposed to be this good? Were they supposed to be winners of the buyout market? How did Nurkić elevate his game in just five months over the offseason?

Quietly, despite the somber chorus about this team’s roster construction, the city was excited about this squad. Everything was clicking, from the bench, to Nurkić, to Damian Lillard, to Jake Layman. They had headroom to grow, especially if CJ McCollum continued to settle into his new role, and as Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood began to integrate.

Nurkić’s injury isn’t one of disappointment as it relates to the past — forget stolen bicycles, Michael Jordan, and missing menisci — it’s a defeat to the spirit of what lay ahead. In potential, and in postseason vindication.

Time will tell us if Nurkić’s injury gets put into the Portland Trail Blazers Wall O’ Fame. This postseason be damned, the most concerning element of the Bosnian’s untimely fracture is in the timing. The team is searching for a new owner, the coach and general manager are facing pressure following a sweep in the playoffs, and their second-most important player just broke his leg for the second time in three years.

If anything Nurkić’s broken leg mirrors Wesley Matthews’ 2015 Achilles tear more than Bowie, or Oden, or Roy. The team is at the precipice of needing (or requiring) change, and the crest of the pass appeared to be peeking over the horizon. Playoff success wasn’t guaranteed, but Portland was going to put up a fight.

Now it’s not clear whether the Blazers will be able to withstand the dissection teams face from opposing coaches in a seven game playoff series. And if it’s another quick bounce out of the postseason, would anyone be surprised by widespread changes to the front office, coaching staff, or roster? That was already the silent threat that hung over the start of this season.

But the season is not over, and Portland is still here. Rip City is, too, by the way. Terry Stotts and his staff have been more amenable to changes from their usual ways this season, and that flexibility will serve them well in adversity. Meanwhile, fans are organizing in the way they do, with a billboard honoring Nurkić on the way.

How Stotts can finagle his way to playoff success with a ragtag roster like this isn’t obvious, but there’s only a few options available. Kanter, Zach Collins, and Meyers Leonard are what’s left to fill the void left by Nurkić, and a strategy consisting of “play the matchup and substitute often” feels appropriate.

We already got a taste of what might be to come on Wednesday night against the Chicago Bulls, with Kanter starting and both Collins and Leonard getting significant run. Chicago wasn’t a worthy challenger, but Stotts stuck with his first substitution platoon plan, adding Leonard to the triad with Seth Curry and Hood.

Meanwhile, it’s unlikely that the Blazers will be able to recover, point-for-point, from Nurkić’s absence. Portland’s defense is 5.35 points per 100 possessions better with Nurkić on the floor this season, and the Bosnian Beast is also a Top 10 player when it comes to defensive field goal percentage for starting centers, according to NBA.com. You can’t expect to scramble and find that production on what’s left of your roster.

But Stotts and the Blazers coaching staff know their strengths, and that’s allowing Lillard to do his thing while trying to limit fouls on defense and contain opponents at the 3-point line. Nurkić has a hand in all three of those things, in one way or another, as the spiderweb of player movement on a basketball floor is wont to make evident. How the replacements fit in won’t be identical.

Kanter, as we saw on Wednesday, seems most likely to fill Nurkić’s starting spot. He’s been a starter before, and on offense he plays on similar areas of the floor. Kanter can’t draw the defense away from the basket the way Nurkić does, but he can pass from the high and mid post, which should allow the Blazers offense to function similarly.

Defense will be more of a challenge, and to that end expect to see these three players chop up minutes the way Mason Plumlee did as a “starter” from 2015-17. That should at least slow opponents’ ability to attack one of them for large swaths of time. It should also help them stay out of foul trouble, of which Collins and Kanter are susceptible to.

So let’s get back to our original question. Now what?

The resounding sentiment, spoken or not, is that this just isn’t fair. And it’s not. And it doesn’t have to be. You’re allowed to be angry, and hurt, and exasperated. 

A cognitive behavioral exercise that’s often used when people feel this way is to imagine themselves as the hub of a bicycle wheel, with all their emotions spinning around them, far out on the rim. The goal of the exercise, they say, is not to live in the emotions on the hub, spinning yourself silly, but to bring yourself back to the center of the wheel. You have to realize that how you feel isn’t who you are, but can be a part of what’s happening around you, however distant.

Blazers fans will need to bring themselves off the rim of the bicycle wheel, down across the dirty spokes, as the centrifugal force of the end of the NBA season spins them around. Finding and living as the hub is not easy. That’s the work, as it were. The pain of this injury, and perhaps the lost playoff potential, will fade. 

Portland is headed to the playoffs, and they’re going to do it without Jusuf Nurkić, and probably without CJ McCollum. The reality is that this team is deeper than it’s been since 2010, maybe longer. It is now facing its greatest on-court challenge since Matthews suffered his Achilles tear in Game 60 of 2015, and you’re going to be there cheering for them every step of the way. 

For now, that’s enough.

How will Trail Blazers fill gap left by Jusuf Nurkic?

How will Trail Blazers fill gap left by Jusuf Nurkic?

A lot of the worry has been centered around how the Portland Trail Blazers can reproduce the offensive impact that Jusuf Nurkic brings to the floor. The big Bosnian is out for the season with a broken leg, an especially damaging blow this late in the season. Portland has run a lot of passes through Nurkic at the high post this year, and the Blazers offense will spatially function fundamentally different with him sidelined. 

However, I think the biggest change for the Blazers with Nurkic out will be on defense.

Portland’s defense is 5.35 points per 100 possessions better with Nurkic on the floor this season, per PBP stats. He’s an excellent defender inside of six feet, and is a top 10 when it comes to defensive field goal percentage for starting centers according to NBA.com.

With Nurkic out, coach Terry Stotts will need to do something different. However, his alternatives in Enes Kanter, Zach Collins, and Meyers Leonard aren't the same kind of defensive players. What can Stotts do to cobble together an effective defensive lineup that stays out of foul trouble? I think there's some answers yet to be had here.

Then there's the offensive side of the ball. Wednesday night's game against the Chicago Bulls notwithstanding, Collins has slowly lost his scoring confidence. Meanwhile Leonard has regressed after having his minutes cut in March.

What this means is that replacing Nurkic’s offensive production can probably be most easily replicated by Kanter, who has the ability to operate from similar spots on the floor, and draw some of that same gravity from defenders.

 It won't be easy, but watch the full video breakdown above to see how Portland might be able to amalgamate a big man rotation that can keep opponents on their toes as the Blazers try to battle for playoff victory in the weeks ahead.

Here's what watching my first-ever NBA game was like 20 years later

Here's what watching my first-ever NBA game was like 20 years later

The first game I ever went to was a matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Portland Trail Blazers on March 21 1999. How do I know this? Do I have a stub? A photo of me heading out to the game? An in-game program? Nope, I don't have any of that.

I know the date of my first NBA game because because Rick Mahorn yelled at me.

Mahorn, of Detroit Bad Boys fame, was in his final season in the NBA while playing with the Sixers in '99. He DNP-CD'd the game, but after the buzzer sounded he stopped to sign autographs as kids hung over the railing leading to the locker room tunnel. 

Admittedly, I didn't really know the proper protocol. What do I do? Do I ask? Do they ask me if I'd like an autograph? Do they just grab the pen? It wasn't clear.

Eventually one big fella walked up to me. We met eyes, and what followed was an awkward silence. After some time looking at each other, Mahorn got angry and eventually asked me “WHAT? YOU CAN’T TALK?”

Set aside the basketball for a moment — the awkward post-ups, the teams combining to go 1-of-21 from the 3-point line, the Greg Anthony lockdown of Allen Iverson — it was Mahorn yelling at me that I'll remember forever.

Thanks to our friends over at the Trail Blazers, I was able to re-watch the entire first game, including being able to see myself in the crowd (we were sitting two rows behind the Sixers bench). The basketball is archaic, and unintuitive, but still just as grabbing as it was when I was 10 years old. Mahorn eventually did sign my magazine, having walked back over to me to apologize for shouting but also sternly telling me that I needed to ask players for their autograph directly next time.

Watch the full video above to see a breakdown of the actual basketball play. And Rick, if you’re watching this — buddy — I don’t know where that signature is. 

Sweep hooks, yells and The Answer: Remembering my first NBA game on its 20th Anniversary 

Sweep hooks, yells and The Answer: Remembering my first NBA game on its 20th Anniversary 

Many of us don’t have the luxury of knowing when our first NBA game was. Either our parents don’t remember, or the ticket stub has been lost, or there were too many to mark it as unique. Today many arenas around the league have special areas dedicated to kids getting special swag while attending their first game, usually with a sticker, a sign, or some kind of trinket. Kids in 2019 will have photo or video record of their first game uploaded to social media where it will live on Facebook’s servers until our sun goes supernova.

That’s why I feel lucky enough to know the exact date of my first game. It was March 21, 1999, exactly 20 years ago today. It came during a lockout-shortened season when and Allen Iverson, in his third season in the NBA, would lead the league in scoring for the first time. Iverson, who was battling hip soreness and was questionable heading into the game, led his Philadelphia 76ers into the Rose Garden for a sleepy 3:00 PM game against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Both squads were battling for playoff position in their respective conferences, with that Sunday’s game representing the halfway point of the shortened 50-game season. The matchup would turn out to be an odd affair, with Iverson and Matt Geiger scoring for the 76ers with little help from their teammates. It would take a herculean effort for Portland to pull ahead, with Greg Anthony annoying the future scoring champ Iverson, batting away steals and jumping passing lanes to the tune of a 31-point Blazers fourth quarter.

Portland would get the win, 95-71, in what now might be looked at as a laughably late-’90s NBA score. All this was witnessed by a crowd of 19,980, including a 10-year-old Dane Delgado sitting right behind the Philadelphia bench in Section 103, Row B, Seat 4. I was there with my friend Jacob Davis, his cousin Cory, and his father Bob, who had secured the tickets through his work.

This 20 year anniversary was a special moment for me, and thanks to our friends over at the Trail Blazers, NBC Sports Northwest was able to secure the entire video broadcast of the game. It’s not often in our lives we get to relive one of the critical moments of our childhood in its entirety, with the full production value that comes with an NBA broadcast.

So I decided to watch my first ever NBA game, with my own face in full view on the left edge of the backboard during every possession at the north end of the floor. I had eyes on this game once as an adolescent, and now I have it as an adult — as someone who covers the NBA and this team for a living, no less. It felt like there might be some treasure left to unbury from the video archives at the start of Iverson’s NBA, so without further ado, here’s some of the takeaways from re-watching my first game two decades later.

There’s too many post-ups

Watching this game got to be sort of a joke after a while, particularly from perspective of how the offense works in contrast to today's game. The modern NBA has shifted in the past few years in the amount of 3-pointers taken, but having seen some old games before it also surprises you how few common actions are missing from a game like this just 20 years ago.

The pick-and-roll is absent, at least on scale, and although the point guard revolution from 2008-2012 has passed us by, the two-man game is a staple in 2019. That didn't appear to be the case in this 1999 matchup, with no more evidence being clearer than in this play early in the first quarter. 

If this play was run in 2019, you might expect Damon Stoudamire to run across screens on the weak side, receive a pass in front of the Blazers bench, then move into a sideline pick-and-roll with Arvydas Sabonis. Instead, he wastes five seconds of shot clock trying to get an entry pass so Sabonis can hit his patented sweep hook. 

After watching this whole game, Portland tried to post up nearly every single player on their roster outside of Stoudamire. By contrast, Philadelphia's game plan was to give Iverson the ball and let him do his thing. 

Are NBA players bad at basketball?

As this game opened, I remember thinking in 1999 that these two teams were not as good at basketball as I was hoping. Watching game film back, it appears they might have been feeling a bit lethargic on a mid-afternoon game on a Sunday. Here's what the first 2:30 of gameplay looked like from a play-by-play standpoint. 

PHI — Missed 19-foot jumper

POR — Turnover, Iverson scores

POR — Sabonis scores on a sweep hook 

PHI — Missed 17-foot jumper

POR — Rasheed Wallace point blank miss

PHI — Missed Iverson 3-pointer

POR — Missed point blank Stoudamire layup

PHI — Missed Matt Geiger hook shot

POR — Wallace airball

It got better from there … at least for Portland. The Sixers wound up scoring just 75 points in the game.

Local TV legends

The old Blazervision had Bill Schonely and Ann Schatz calling this game, not to mention the late Steve “Snapper” Jones as the color man during the actual broadcast. Everything about the production —  particularly in the three-dimensionality of the intro —  screamed 1999. If a graphic could have a gradient on it, it did, and that went the double for the local television ads that ran during the breaks (the Northwest Ford Store and Godfather's Pizza ads were something else). But check out this intro.

Greg Anthony went HAM on Iverson

Greg Anthony averaged double-digit points once in his career, adding 14 PPG in 1995-96 when he was with the Vancouver Grizzlies. Anthony was a career backup, and the athletic, annoying, pestering guard had the capacity to aggravate star players from opposing sidelines.

Anthony was the saving grace for the Blazers in this game, and boy did they need it. The teams combined for 30 points in the third quarter alone, and despite playing with a nagging hip ailment, Iverson was on his way to scoring big points heading into the fourth quarter.

The pesky 30-year-old was everywhere, helping to force Iverson into four turnovers including during a stretch run midway through the fourth that helped Portland contain the 76ers to 16 points.

These performances in front of kids are the things that make uneven impressions, and no doubt I forever gave Anthony too much credit as a defensive mastermind. The reality is that Anthony was a career -0.4 defensive box plus/minus player, although 1999 was one of three positive DBPM seasons for him.

To me he was The Guy Who Shut Down Iverson until I was around 20 years old.

Rick Mahorn yelled at me after the game

Rick Mahorn (seated) watches a play in Mar. 21, 1999. The author sits behind him (white hat, second row behind the railing).

Rick Mahorn was a Bad Boy with the Detroit Pistons, winning the 1989 NBA Championship and taking home all-defensive honors in 1990. The Bad Boys were badasses, and not to be trifled with in an era where physicality and brute force were more accepted as part of the game.

So perhaps I should have expected Mahorn to yell at a 10-year-old Dane Delgado?

Because of where our seats were located, behind the Sixers bench and to the right of the visitor’s hallway, we were able to move to the railing where players from Philadelphia were signing autographs at the conclusion of the game. Jake's dad had given me a Sharpie and the in-arena magazine to collect signatures, but I had never done that before and I was less than confident.

At the railing, I failed to recognize anybody outside of Matt Geiger. Iverson was gone, and not knowing what the protocol was but seeing everyone else leaning over the railing with pens and paper, I simply did the same. 

Eventually Mahorn made his way to my outstretched Sharpie and looked in my direction. A pregnant silence filled as our eyes met, and the forehead of the 40-year-old bruiser slowly wrinkled. My childhood pal Jacob Davis described the moment from his point of view in a recent phone interview with NBC Sports Northwest.

"He turned and looked to you, and you just sort of held [the magazine] out to him," laughed Davis. 

Maybe it was wanting to defer to an adult, or maybe it was shock from the sheer size of the 6-foot-10 Mahorn standing just feet away from me, but I didn't dare utter the first word. Perhaps it was his duty to say something as the player (and I as a child)? It's been two decades and I still haven't decided who was in the wrong. In either case, Mahorn didn't bite, so I doubled down. 

"Then you just held it out to him again — very imploringly — it was very obvious what you wanted," said Davis.

The air hung between us, and eventually Mahorn practically spit the words at me. 

"What?! You can't talk?"

Mahorn then walked away, taking a couple steps before eventually realizing his error and returning back to the stricken grade schooler. Mahorn took the issue of "Rip City" magazine that Bob had brought for this occasion, dutifully signing the photo of Blazers guard Jim Jackson before issuing me some advice about speaking up and asking players directly.

Rip City Magazine from March 1999.

"When he came back, he was like 'Ah, I'm sorry," said Davis.

As I walked back to Jake and his dad, they looked at me expectantly.

“Who’d you get?”

I looked at Jacob, then at Bob, then back at the magazine. I studied the lines on the cover, trying to read each squiggle letter-by-letter to read it out. Finally, I gave him the answer about the signature from the NBA player who yelled at me for not being able to talk.

“... I don’t know.”

To this day I still can’t find that damn magazine.

Rick, if you’re reading this — I need a replacement autograph. This time I'll be sure to ask directly.