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Trail Blazers vs. Lakers: Why Friday’s Game is So Important

Thursday, April 02, 2015

 

Friday night’s Trail Blazers game against the Los Angeles Lakers is not as meaningless as it may seem at first glance.

Oh sure, the game – like every contest in the final weeks of the season—carries implications for playoff position, though it’s impossible to figure out who the Trail Blazers should aspire to play in the first round of the very tough Western Conference.

But here’s the real reason the Lakers game should be savored like a Damian Lillard “heat check”: For only the second time in Portland’s 45-year history, the Trail Blazers will own an actual multi-year streak of having a better record than the Lakers.

The only other time that has happened was a three-year stretch from 1990-91 to 1992-93, and even that streak was forever tainted by the Lakers defeating the Trail Blazers in the 1991 Western Conference finals after Portland had posted its best regular season ever, 63-19. 

(A show of hands please if you have endured the all-too-painful highlight of Magic Johnson hands raised in celebration after he threw the ball the length of the court to kill the final seconds of the series-clinching Game 6 in 1991. Another show of hands if you have eternally cursed the Trail Blazers’ Clifford Robinson for dropping the ball with 57 seconds to play on a 4-on-1 break that would have given Portland the lead in that decisive Game 6.)

In all, Portland has only finished with a better record than the Lakers nine times since the Trail Blazers entered the league in 1970, and the 2013-14 season marked  the first time it had happened since the two teams had the same 50-32 record in the 2002-03 season.

So why do any of these numbers matter? To take a healthy dose of poetic license, “How do I hate thee, let me count the ways.”

Beyond the fact that Lakers fans have long been insufferable at Trail Blazer home games in ill-fitting Kobe Bryant/Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar jerseys, there are multiple reasons.

Before the SuperSonics left Seattle in 2008 for Oklahoma City, a good case could be made that they along with the Lakers were Portland’s biggest rival. But the SuperSonics/Thunder’s pick of Trail Blazer-killer Kevin Durant after Portland unwisely chose Greg Oden notwithstanding, the intensity of the rivalry did not survive the move to Oklahoma City.

And even though the Lakers and the Trail Blazers haven’t played in the same division for more than a decade, there’s too much history for the Lakers not to be Portland’s most hated rival (although we know full well Lakers fans hardly consider Portland at all when it comes to their most despised opponents).

Portland finished second behind the Lakers eight times in the Pacific Division before the NBA moved the Trail Blazers to the Northwest Division in 2004, including five straight second-place finishes in the 1980s. 

The only happy note in this rivalry came after the Trail Blazers finished second for the first time in the Pacific Division when they stunned the Lakers with a four-game sweep in the 1977 Western Conference finals en route to Portland’s only championship.

Incredibly, the Trail Blazers’ bitter disappointment in the 1991 Western Conference finals at the Lakers’ hands has stiff competition for the rivalry’s most agonizing moment. That of course came in the 2000 Western Conference finals when the Trail Blazers choked away a 15-point fourth quarter lead in Game 7, creating its own indelible highlight of Shaquille O’Neal raising his arms in joy after a backbreaking alley-oop dunk).

Obviously, this Friday’s Trail Blazers-Lakers game can do nothing to erase the pain of this rivalry. But for one night, rejoice in the Trail Blazers having an all-too-rare second straight season of outplaying the Lakers badly, laugh at their fans’ lamenting that former NBA Commissioner David Stern vetoed the trade of superstar Chris Paul to the Lakers in 2011 and chuckle that Portland’s leading scorer has even stolen Los Angeles’ initials.

Given that the Lakers will eventually be freed of Bryant’s salary cap-crushing contract and that Los Angeles will always be an attractive free every agent destination (please Lillard, promise not to go there) this cannot last forever. Let’s enjoy every second of it.

 

A native Oregonian, Hank Stern had a 24-year career in journalism, working for more than a decade as a reporter with The Associated Press in Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He worked seven years for The Oregonian as a reporter in east Multnomah County, Washington County and Portland’s City Hall. In 2005, he became Willamette Week’s managing news editor and worked there until 2011.

 

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