The Los Angeles Lakers had ruled the NBA’s Western Conference from 1980-89, going to the Finals eight times and winning five rings. The Portland Trail Blazers had been stuck in a rut since winning the championship in 1977. They hadn’t even reached the conference finals since and coming into 1990 were in their first full year under head coach Rick Adelman. But when the Showtime Lakers finally fell, it was the 1990 Portland Trail Blazers who replaced them as the class of the Western Conference.
Portland had a well-balanced starting five. Terry Porter was a top point guard, and Kevin Duckworth gave the Trail Blazers a true center. The forward position had two tough, physical rebounders in Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams. And most of all, the Blazers had a genuine star in two-guard Clyde Drexler, who averaged 23 points per game and was more than capable of going to the glass or distributing the ball, as situations required it.
The previous year had seen the Blazers stumble to a 39-43 record, barely scrape into the playoffs and be summarily sent home by the Lakers. Portland started off this season much better. They were 18-7 on December 19.
A seven-game win streak in January moved them to 31-11. In March, they ripped off ten wins in a row and closed the year by winning eight of the last nine. Their 59-23 record was the best in franchise history—ten games better than the team that had won the NBA title in 1977 and one game better than the ’78 team which previously held the mark.
Portland’s mark was tied for second-best in the entire NBA, matching the win total of the reigning champion Detroit Pistons. The only team better was the rival Lakers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had retired, but Magic Johnson stepped up with an MVP year and led Los Angeles to 63 wins. The Lakers weren’t the intimidating force they’d been in the previous decade though, and Portland led the group of teams hungry for a shot at the dynasty.
Before dealing Magic or any thoughts of the finals, Portland had to get down to business against the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs had a potent backcourt with Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman, a top rebounder in the post with Roy Tarpley and a quality veteran scorer in Adrian Dantley. In each of the first two games, Dallas outshot Portland from the floor But each time, the Blazers found a way to make up for it. In Game 1 it was a decisive rebounding edge, keyed by Williams’ 16 rebounds. In Game 2 it was turnovers, forcing 19 Maverick miscues. With Dallas on the ropes, Portland didn’t let them off the hook when the series shifted to Big D. Drexler scored 20 and dished 10 assists in Game 3, Kersey scored 29 and Portland coasted to a 106-92 series-clinching win.
The next opponent was San Antonio. The Spurs were anchored around a 24-year-old David Robinson at center, who averaged 24 points/12 rebounds/4 blocks per game during the regular season. Terry Cumming was a 22 ppg scorer at the forward spot and a solid veteran presence. The same could be said for 33-year-old point guard Maurice Cheeks, who’d been a part of some of the excellent Philadelphia 76ers teams with Julius Erving. San Antonio had won 56 games and with the presence of Robinson, were a popular choice to be the team that eventually supplanted Los Angeles atop the West.
Portland shut down Robinson in Game 1, holding him to nine points. Drexler scored 23 points and handed out 11 assists, leading his team to an easy thirteen-point win. Two nights later in Game 2, Portland used a balanced attack to hold off a determined effort from Robinson and Cummings, who combined for 64 points. Portland’s 122-112 win gave them a 2-0 series lead.
It was time for another trip to Texas, but the visit to San Antonio wasn’t nearly as pleasant as the one to Dallas. The Blazers were pounded on the glass in a decisive Game 3 loss, and their defense was lackluster in Game 4, with San Antonio shooting better than 50 percent from the floor en route to a series-tying 115-105 win.
Portland came out, no pun intending, blazing in Game 5 back at home and they were up 19 at the half. But the lead disappeared and the game went to double overtime. In the end, Porter scored 38, Drexler poured in 35 and the Blazers finally survived 138-132. But again, the road game was not just a loss, it was a no-show. San Antonio was up 11 by half and won by fifteen points. There’s a cliché in the NBA that a series doesn’t really begin until the road team wins a game or its’ Game 7. On Saturday, May 19, the Portland-San Antonio series was ready to really begin.
The fans of the Pacific Northwest were treated to an outstanding Game 7 and a great effort by their team. Portland only shot 37 percent, but they dug deep and found ways to compensate. Williams and Kersey each had 15 rebounds, while Drexler grabbed 13, leading to a decisive edge on the glass. Defensively, Portland held Robinson to 7-of-21 shooting. Porter knocked down 36 points. The game went to overtime, but the Blazers ultimately hung on, 108-105.
This should have been the moment for Portland to confront Los Angeles head-on. But the Phoenix Suns got in the way. A team that had won 54 games, the Suns were a good team with a great passing point guard in Kevin Johnson and an offensive machine in forward Tom Chambers. But they were also the #5 seed and unexpected postseason runs just aren’t a part of life in the NBA. Yet it was the Suns who not only took out the Lakers, they did it in five games. It would be Blazers-Suns to decide who was the new king in the West.
The first two games in Portland came down to the wire, but Portland pulled them both out. Six players scored in double figures in Game 1’s 100-98 win, and the Blazers rallied from 18 down at the half to take Game 2, 108-107. Kersey was the hero, with 29 points and 11 rebounds.
If you thought Portland had learned about focus on the road after the San Antonio scare, you would be wrong. Phoenix was up 40-18 after one quarter in Game 3 and coasted to a win. And the Blazers allowed 53 percent shooting from the floor in a 119-107 loss in Game 4 that sent the series back north all tied up.
Drexler stepped up and took the bull by the horns in Game 5, with a 32-point/10 rebound game, with Portland getting a 120-114 win that put them on the brink of the Finals. For Game 6, the Blazers found some of the gumption that had pulled them through in the finale against the Spurs. Phoenix enjoyed edges in shooting from the floor and getting to the line. Portland countered by winning the battle of the boards, with a complete team effort. And they hit three-pointers, with Porter burying four from behind the arc. They won the game 112-109 and for the first time since 1977, the Trail Blazers were going to the NBA Finals.
There wouldn’t be a championship awaiting. A Game 2 victory on the road in Detroit gave the Blazers hope. But they couldn’t stop the Pistons down the stretch in the games played back in Portland, and after Detroit won nail-biters in Games 4 & 5 that put away the series.
One year later, Portland won 63 games and earned the top seed in the West. The Lakers turned the tables, winning in the playoffs and getting back to the Finals. But one year later, Portland was back. They took the West before falling to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the Finals. There would be no championship in the Drexler era, and the city still awaits its first crown since 1977. But the 1990 Portland Trail Blazers were still the team that finally broke through the franchise’s playoff rut and broke through the wall the Lakers had put between themselves and the Western Conference throughout the previous decade.