Before Meyers Leonard left the arena for a final time this season, he needed to make one more stop.
He walked down the back hallway inside the Moda Center with his wife and a small group of friends and then made a hard left, dipping back into the long deserted locker room to grab a memento from a special night that concluded a unforgettable season.
Leonard snagged a final box score, which included his stat line from the best game-winner of his seven year NBA career: 30 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in 40:17.
He said he probably wouldn’t frame, but he wanted the keepsake.
It’s safe to say Leonard is not the only person in Rip City who will want to save the memory from this Trail Blazers run. This team played long enough and racked up enough special moments that depending on who you ask, those lasting memories are different.
For rookie Anfernee Simons it will be the first round series against Oklahoma City.
“That … that was fun,” the Blazers rookie said through a massive grin, recalling Damian Lillard’s 37-foot series-clinching dagger that sent a bitter rival packing.
For Jake Layman, it will probably be Game 7 in Denver when the Blazers climbed back from down 17 to win on the road after avoiding elimination in Game 6.
And Seth Curry will always appreciate earning the chance to go head-to-head against his older brother, Stephen, a backyard sibling rivalry turned Western Conference Finals showdown. Like Leonard, Seth Curry left with his brothers’ Golden State jersey. It was a night to leave with a souvenir.
Perhaps those aren’t the moments you’ll cling to weeks, months or years from now when remembering this iteration of the Blazers. Maybe you’ll remember a four overtime marathon capped by Hood’s heroics. Or Lillard waving goodbye to Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Or CJ McCollum drilling a mid-range daggers over a helpless Torrey Craig. Or a hobbled Enes Kanter fighting off Steven Adams and Nikola Jokic with a separated left shoulder.
“On the whole probably just getting here to Western Conference Finals,” Evan Turner said when asked what will stick with him about this season. “I think that’s pretty cool when you look at it. But there’s a lot of little moments in between.”
The little moments is what made this season special, and made the big moments possible. Even the Blazers joyous and exhilarating run was dotted with heartbreak and setbacks along the way. Three days before the season Paul Allen, the team’s long time owner, passed away suddenly. Then in the waning days of the regular season, center Jusuf Nurkic fractured his leg, ending his best NBA season nine games before the playoffs. After the triumph of the first round win over, Oklahoma City video coordinator and development coach Jon Yim was in a serious car accident that caused him to miss the remainder of the playoffs.
“We lose our owner,” Lillard said. “We dealt with injuries -- CJ missed a lot of games at a crucial stretch in the season, and we just kept answering the call. And that takes a group of guys to maybe go from not playing minutes, stepping up, giving us good minutes, trusting each other, leaning on each other. It takes a real group to be able to come together in those hard times on more than one occasion, and I thought we did that.”
It was Meyers Leonard on Monday. But it had been Evan Turner in Games 6 and 7 against Denver. Rodney Hood came off the bench to deliver a game-winning at the end of four overtimes after Enes Kanter had sealed a playoff-opening win with a two crucial late-game rebounds. Up and down the roster, the Blazers answered the call.
This year was always going to be defined by what the Blazers did in the playoffs. It was a core that had proved it could be consistently good but rarely great in years past. They had been swept out of consecutive playoffs and another early exit could have led to a major overhaul. Through adversity and with Lillard’s steady leadership guiding a collective push, the Blazers dashed preseason expectations and then exorcised their postseason demons.
“We all stayed ready,” Turner said. “Nobody really bailed out if things didn’t go their way. We stayed together as a team. I think that was the most special thing. We really stayed together as a team. You can really see how, in a lot of different ways, we grew as a team. We reached our full potential. Because before the season nobody really had us pegged to do any of this.”
You cannot capture this moment again. That’s not because the Blazers can’t get back to this stage, in fact, Lillard spent much his postgame press conference explaining exactly why he thinks his team showed they can repeat their run. That’s not because the nature of the business means this team will look a little different next season. The Blazers might come back better, stronger for having made this playoff push and wiser for passing the tests along the way.
This moment isn’t repeatable because expectations mute joy. The first time with its shocking unanticipated delight is always going to be the sweetest. The Blazers won’t be able to duplicate this even with identical results.
It’s why Seth Curry made sure to swap jerseys with his brother. It’s why Leonard made that last stop to grab a box score. It was a night to savor the memories and appreciate the ride.
“When you look back at this it’s going to be special for all of us individually and as a team,” Hood said. “We made it to the Western Conference Finals. People don’t understand how hard that is to do. And to do it in the Western Conference. And to play great basketball against the defending world champions. We can’t ask for nothing better.”