The city of Portland saw the best basketball in the Western Conference played in the early part of the 1990s. They reached the NBA Finals in 1990. In 1991, the Trail Blazers posted the best record in the West and reached the conference finals before losing to Magic Johnson and the Lakers. And the 1992 Portland Trail Blazers went back to the NBA Finals. But those dynasties kept getting in the way. First, it had been the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. Then, in 1992, it was Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Portland was led by their great two-guard, Clyde Drexler. A 1st-team NBA All-Star, he averaged 25 points/7rebounds/7 assists per game. Terry Porter was an excellent point guard, knocking down 18ppg, dishing six assists and at 40 percent from behind the arc, was the team’s best three-point shooter. Danny Ainge, a starter on the Bird-era championship teams in Boston came off the bench and gave his team double-digit points.
The Blazers also had a physical and athletic frontcourt. Four players—Buck Williams, Jerome Kersey, Kevin Duckworth and Cliff Robinson, scored in double digits per game, hit the boards and defended the rim. Portland ranked third in the NBA in defensive efficiency and was never going to be outmuscled.
Drexler opened the season by dropping 31 on a good Cleveland Cavaliers team in a 117-106 home win, but the Blazers promptly lost the next three. They lost to the Bulls, and twice to contending Golden State. By Christmas, Portland’s record was a mediocre 16-10. They developed consistency through the end of January and the record reached 30-19, but they still didn’t have a championship look to them.
It was a strong February where they won nine of eleven games that saw things start to turn upward and Portland closed strong. After a low point, a 118-86 blowout loss at Utah, they won consecutive games at Golden State. The Blazers final record of 57-25 edged out the Jazz and Warriors by two games for the #1 seed in the Western Conference.
Another playoff meeting with the Lakers was on tap, but this was a different Los Angeles team. Magic Johnson had retired in November after being diagnosed with the HIV virus. James Worthy was injured in March and lost for the season. Sam Perkins and A.C. Green were good forwards and Byron Scott was still around from the Showtime Dynasty days. But these Lakers came into the postseason with a record of 43-39.
Portland put their entire arsenal on display in Game 1. Porter, Drexler, Williams and Robinson all scored 20-plus. The Blazers had 75 points by halftime and then coasted home to a 115-102 win. They came out in Game 2 and did it on defense, holding the Lakers to 39 percent shooting and pulling away more gradually, but no less authoritatively in a 101-79 rout.
The first round was a best-of-five affair in 1992 and Drexler was ready to finish this one off, as he dropped 42 in the old L.A. Forum. But his supporting cast failed him this time, Los Angeles was much more balanced and the Blazers lost an overtime decision. They responded by cranking up the defensive intensity in Game 4. The Lakers shot just 37 percent. Portland controlled the boards. Drexler’s final line was 26/10/7 and the 102-76 rout sent them to the second round.
Phoenix was up next. The Suns were a 53-win team that played a rapid pace and were led by a dynamic point guard in Kevin Johnson, along with two wingmen in Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle. The three combined to score 57 points per game. Where they weren’t as strong was on the defensive end, where softness inside was a big liability.
Portland’s offense wasn’t humming in Game 1, as they shot only 38 percent. They made up for it defensively by forcing 23 turnovers. Porter’s 31 points and Drexler’s 26 were enough to eke out a 113-11 win. Game 2, like the opener, was tied after three quarters. Like the opener, the Blazers turned up the defensive heat, forcing 18 turnovers in this one. Drexler scored 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Porter hit 27 and Kersey added 25 as Portland pulled away to a 126-119 win.
Game 3 was a virtual rerun of what happened in the Laker series. Drexler was ready on the road and dropped 37. No one else was. The Blazers trailed by eleven after the first quarter and lost 124-117.
The fourth game was the signature battle of the series. This time Phoenix took care of the basketball, but Portland was in rhythm offensively, hitting 58 percent of their shots. They again dug a hole, trailing by thirteen after a quarter, but this time clawed their way back.
Drexler’s 33/8/11 line was the performance of the game, while Porter added 31 and handed out 14 assists. But the big difference was that Ainge came off the bench, popped in 25 points and the result was a wild double-overtime win, 153-111. Portland came home for Game 5 and closed it out, 118-106, behind a vintage 34/8/8 night from Drexler.
It was on to the conference finals where the Utah Jazz were waiting. The Jazz were built around the all-around brilliance of power forward Karl Malone, the passing of John Stockton and the scoring of Jeff Malone (no relation to Karl). It was the first time the Jazz had reached this stage of the postseason and the experience factor played a big part in this series.
Portland was ready to roll and jumped out to an 18-point lead in the first quarter of Game 1. They cruised home, 113-88. Neither Drexler nor Karl Malone played well, but Porter, Kersey and Duckworth picked up the slack.
Utah’s Big Three answered with a combined 70 points in Game 2, but Drexler bounced back with a 36-point game, while Porter went wild and scored 41. The Blazers won 119-112. They went to Salt Lake City and took an eight-point lead at halftime of Game 3. But Porter was behind held in check this time, Karl Malone went off and the Jazz got back in the series with a 97-89 win.
Porter came back with 34 in Game 4, while Drexler scored 27. But Clyde’s points came on 9-for-21 shooting. Meanwhile, Utah’s Malones combined for 61 points and tied the series with 121-112 win.
The Blazers still couldn’t stop Karl Malone in Game 5, as he went for 38 points/14 rebounds. Portland answered with their depth—Drexler, Porter, Kersey and Duckworth all scored 24-plus points. Stockton was shut down. It took overtime, but the Blazes got a hold of the series with a 127-121 win.
Portland brought their defense with them to Utah for Game 6, holding Stockton and Jeff Malone to a combined 12-for-32 shooting. The Blazers were forcing Karl Malone to beat them by himself and they simply had too much talent. Six players scored between 10-18 points for Portland in the sixth game. It was tied going into the fourth quarter, but depth prevailed and the 105-97 win sent the Trail Blazers to their second NBA Finals in three years.
The last hurdle was Jordan and the Bulls, with their league-best 67 wins. If you looked at the individual talent, there was a reason to think Portland had a shot. They had six of the best nine players in the Finals. There was hope Drexler’s star could shine bright enough to at least mitigate Jordan and allowed Blazer depth to prevail.
One quarter into Game 1, it was apparent that wouldn’t be the case. In one of sport’s legendary performances, Jordan nailed six treys in the first quarter alone and turned to Magic Johnson at the NBC broadcast table and just shrugged his shoulders. Drexler struggled to a 5-for-14 night and Portland lost 122-89.
That game set the tone, but the Blazers didn’t go quietly. Porter, Drexler and Williams combined for 69 points in a 115-104 overtime win in Game 2. With the Finals using a 2-3-2 format, Portland had an opportunity to win the championship without going back to Chicago, if they kept their perfect postseason run at home going.
Alas, that wouldn’t happen here any more than it did in 1990 when Portland split the first two in Detroit and then lost all three at home. The Blazers shot just 36% in a Game 3 loss. Duckworth led a strong rebounding effort that won Game 4, but Jordan controlled Game 5 from the outset, scoring 46, while Drexler’s 30 came at the price of 9-for-21 shooting. The 119-106 loss meant Portland faced the nearly impossible task of winning the final two in old Chicago Stadium.
They gave it a notable shot. Porter, Kersey and Drexler combined for 70 and with a 15-point lead after three quarters, were in position to force a seventh game. But the Blazers collapsed in the fourth quarter, lost 97-93 and watched the Bulls celebrate.
The 1992 Portland Trail Blazers were the effective end of an era that was all too short. After first-round losses each of the next two years, the organization fired head coach Rick Adelman. The move did not work out. Portland has yet to return to the NBA Finals since the early 1990s era that were filled with such promise.