When it was finally over some three and a half hours after it started, and the Trail Blazers had survived the marathon there were a mix of emotions as the team huddled at the center of the pinwheel at mid-court.
A pulsing whirlwind of elation and exhaustion swept over the group that had just wrapped a four overtime thriller to take a 2-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets.
“It was just relief,” Al-Farouq Aminu said. “At the end of the day no matter how long it took we completed the task at hand. So it was just a relief. There were so many moments where it looked like the game might’ve slipped away or we missed on opportunities. And for us to just continue to battle and get that ... it was just a great feeling.”
This night was just the latest affirmation that this team, this season and this playoff run is truly special. Not just because Moe Harkless shrugged off the ‘questionable’ tag to log 45 minutes on a bum right ankle, and not because Enes Kanter is playing with essentially one arm after re-aggravating an already separated left shoulder. Not because CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard scored every single point for the Blazers in the first three overtimes periods, doing what stars do in crucial moments. And not because Rodney Hood came off the bench to deliver the game-clincher, after telling his teammates he would do just that.
It’s affirmation is because of all those things happened in one night for one team. Rip City is a metropolis built on heartbreak and cynicism, but nights like Friday at the Moda Center threaten to convert even the most ardent non-believers.
What this game exposed was what makes this group of Blazers special. Kanter spent his postgame media session groaning through excruciating shoulder pain, explaining that he thinks he further separated his already injured left shoulder at some point in the first overtime. He had to tuck his arm into his jersey in order to run down the floor. He then played three more overtimes with an arm he could barely feel.
In the locker room, his left shoulder was wrapped in what has become a customary ace bandage, and he also had another smaller wrap on his right elbow, a new injury earned from diving out of bounds to track down a long rebound.
“Sometimes you got to make some sacrifices to get a win,” said Kanter, who logged 56 grueling minutes. “I’ll get painkillers for next game. I hope I can play. But I’ll be fine.”
Harkless’ night didn’t end with as quite a dramatic scene. Instead he answered questions at the podium while his as eyes kept drawing back to the box score on the table in front of him.
“65 minutes. That’s crazy,” Harkless said, catching the workload for Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. “A lot of guys played a lot of minutes tonight. Man ...”
When he showed up at the arena, Harkless’ official injury designation was still ‘questionable’ with a right ankle sprain. He always knew he was going to play and told the Blazers coaches and training staff that he didn’t want to be on a minutes restriction. The ankle injury that he suffered Wednesday night that kept him out of the final 29 minutes of Game 2 wasn’t going to stop him from pouring himself into Game 3.
“It’s the playoffs,” he said. “I’d go out there with one ankle if I had to. So it was just -- as long as I was able to run up and down the court I was going to play.”
The nights from Harkless and Kanter epitomize this group. This team lost its star center to a gruesome leg injury in late March, and barely had a lull, surging forward when things could have easily tumbled in the other direction. When Jokic bullied them in Game 1 to give Denver an early series lead they responded by gutting out two gritty wins, the latest in historically epic fashion. Instead of looking for excuses the Blazers have looked at each other to find their collective strength.
“I mean, it doesn’t surprise me,” Lillard said. “We all depend on each other. We lean on each other. Those guys [Kanter and Harkless] know how important they are to our team, so the fact that they’re out there playing through injuries, I think it just shows how tough they are for one, and it also shows how bad they want it, how much they’re invested into our team, how much they care. They’re willing to go out there not 100 percent, banged up, and still fight with the team. They know how much we need them.”
Friday night’s win was revealing not for its new discoveries, but for its confirmation. All those things you think about this team: The toughness, the perseverance, the unshakeable will. They were all there. This was less stunning than it was affirming. Of course they came out on top in a game like that. This is a determined group on a remarkable run, and they keep finding a way. Adversity can break teams. It has forged this one.
“It showed a lot about us,” Aminu said. “To be in the condition and to be able to do that that’s tough. And guys just kept on making plays, kept on stepping up and kept on doing what we had to do, and we pulled it out. It was beautiful.”