1990 had been a breakthrough year for the Portland Trail Blazers. After four straight years of first-round playoff exits, the franchise broke through under first-year coach Rick Adelman and made the NBA Finals for the first time since their championship year of 1977. The 1991 Portland Trail Blazers edition spent the entire regular season and half of the postseason looking ready to take that next step, until the dream fell apart at the end.
Clyde Drexler led the way. The 6’7” two-guard averaged 22 points/7 rebounds/6 assists. Terry Porter was an excellent floor leader at the point, handing out eight assists per game and also knocking down 17 a night. Danny Ainge, a starter on some of the best Bird-era Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s, provided a veteran presence off the bench, chipping in 11ppg.
The frontcourt was deep and talented—Buck Williams, Jerome Kersey, Kevin Duckworth and Cliff Robinson all were double-digit scorers and all hit the boards. Portland had balanced lineup and ranked in the NBA’s top three in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Blazers came barreling out of the gate and won 24 of their first 27 games. They beat Magic Johnson’s Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Bulls and the two-time defending NBA champion Detroit Pistons. There were only minor hiccups during the regular season. A four-game losing streak at the end of February tightened the Blazers-Lakers race for the top seed in the Western Conference.
Portland responded by ripping off 16 straight wins between March 20 and April 19, including a home-and-home sweep of Los Angeles. The Blazers’ 63-19 record was the best in the league and the road to the NBA championship would have to go through the Pacific Northwest.
The Seattle Super Sonics (today’s Oklahoma City Thunder) were the 8-seed in the West, but they had a talented roster. Xavier McDaniel, Derrick McKey and Shawn Kemp made for a frontline that no one could overwhelm, and they combined to average 52 points/19 rebounds per game. The backcourt had a rookie by the name of Gary Payton and the head coach was K.C. Jones, who led the Celtics to titles in 1984 and 1986.
Drexler was ready when the series opened. He went off for 39 in Game 1 and then posted a 22/10/8 line in Game 2. The supporting cast took turns stepping up—Kersey delivered 31 points in the opener, while Ainge came off the bench to knock down 18 in the second game. Portland held serve at home with wins of 110-102 and 115-106.
The first round of the playoffs was best-of-five at this time, so the Blazers were on the brink of clinching. But they went soft on the boards in Game 3, outrebounded 43-31 in a 102-99 loss. And they were sloppy in Game 4, turning the ball over twenty times in a 101-89 loss. The series would return to Portland for a decisive fifth game.
The Blazers attacked the glass, with Buck Williams’ 12 rebounds keying a 49-31 edge on the boards. Porter came up big with 23 points and 11 assists. Robinson and Drexler were each good for 20-plus. Portland led by 22 points after three quarters and coasted home to a 119-107 win.
Utah, with its Hall of Fame duo of John Stockton at the point and Karl Malone at power forward was up next. With the help of another Malone by the name of Jeff, who averaged 18ppg, they won 54 games in the regular season.
Game 1 was tight for a half, but Portland was again getting after rebounds. Drexler and Kersey combined for 28 boards and Karl Malone was held to 8-for-24 shooting. Portland pulled away to a 117-97 win.
Kersey had another big night in Game 2, dropping 34 points, while Drexler scored 23 and showcased his passing chops with 15 assists. Portland led by 16 after three quarters before holding off a Utah rally, led by Karl Malone’s 40-point/16-rebound night. The Blazers survived 118-116.
Once again, going on the road for Game 3 induced a letdown. Drexler shot 5-for-17 and the Blazers as a whole only hit 38 percent from the floor in a 107-101 loss. But in this series, Portland turned the tables with a bounce back in Game 4. Their own defense forced Stockton into a 4-for-14 night. Duckworth delivered 30 points/11 rebounds and was able to at least negate Karl Malone. It was enough for Portland to again get a comfortable lead after three quarters and again hang on, this time 104-101.
The Game 4 road win had all but sealed the series and Portland came back home to make it official in Game 5. They won the rebounding battle, forced Karl Malone into a bad shooting night, got control of the game in the third quarter and won 103-96. They were going back to the Western Conference Finals .
For three quarters of Game 1 against the Lakers, the Blazers looked ready to keep their homecourt dominance going. They led by 12 going into the fourth quarter. But they were sloppy, with Duckworth’s eight turnovers being the biggest example. Portland lost their first home game of the playoffs, 111-106.
That loss put the in a hole they would not catch up from. Even though a dominant Game 2 win evened the series, the Blazers lost both middle games in Los Angeles by double-digits. They won Game 5 back at home and were in position to finally steal a road win in Game 6. But they dropped a 91-90 heartbreaker. There would be no return to the NBA Finals.
From the perspective of history it’s unlikely the loss denied Portland a championship. Jordan’s Bulls were coming on strong and they dispatched the Lakers in five games, including three wins in Los Angeles. Given that this was the first of six rings for Michael, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t have also beaten Portland. But in the moment, in the spring of 1991, it looked considerably different. It looked like the Blazers had missed their moment.
They made one more trip to the Finals in 1992, losing to Chicago and then spent the next six years losing in the first round of the playoffs. The Trail Blazers of the early 1990s are remembered as a talented team that couldn’t quite over the hump. The epitome of both that talent and that disappointment came in 1991.