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BY RYAN CLARKE/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP/Portland's united 2018-19 team left its mark in franchise lore

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Meyers Leonard excites the crowd en route to 25 first-half points, of his 30 total, as the Trail Blazers battle Golden State in Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference finals Monday night at Moda Center.Standing by his locker before a postgame shower, Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard took a hearty swig of a well-earned Coors Light.

"This is how country boys hydrate," he said.

His teammates chuckled and shook their heads.

It was a moment of levity for the Blazers in the aftermath of Monday night's Game 4 loss in overtime to Golden State, one that ended Portland's miraculous postseason run and sent the Warriors to a fifth straight NBA Finals.

Leonard's performance — a career-high 30 points, 25 in an electrifying first half — was the last of many iconic moments for the Blazers in the 2019 playoffs.

The first was a buzzer-beater by Damian Lillard to end a dramatic first-round series against Oklahoma City, a shot immortalized in the halls of Moda Center before the second round even started.

A seven-game marathon against the Denver Nuggets — including a quadruple overtime game — ended with CJ McCollum's heroics in Game 7 to send Portland to the Western Conference finals.

The Western Conference finals? What?

It was hard to believe, given what happened to Jusuf Nurkic on March 25. That Blazers locker room was silent, sullen, facing the darkest of voids, as its postseason hopes appeared dashed. The Blazers were a nice story, but without their dominant starting center, they were toast, right?

Nope.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity — as can sometimes be the case for a Blazers fan base with good reason to be cynical — this Portland team responded and made a run not seen in this town in nearly two decades. With an uncommon chemistry and a dash of good fortune, they earned a chance to face the two-time defending champs.

"It shows the character of this team," Blazers guard Seth Curry said. "We've been through a lot of adversity on the court, off the court, injuries and a lot of different things. We continued to focus on the basketball when we came to the gym."

Yes, Portland got swept. Yes, it was outmatched, even with Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins sidelined by injury. But the Blazers were playing with house money and left the table with more chips than they started with.

That they made it this far is a testament to their resolve.

"Everybody played their role, everybody persevered all year," Curry said. "Every person had that moment this year to show that they can help the team. When one guy went down, somebody stepped up and played that role. It's a special team."

Rodney Hood from Cleveland arrived via trade and turned his career around.

Enes Kanter left basketball purgatory in New York and found a team, city and state that embraced him. His was a story of overcoming some of the worst kind of adversity — exiled from his home country of Turkey by an authoritarian regime that makes its political enemies disappear.

"This team, this whole organization, the state of Oregon and even the senators, it was like family to me," Kanter said. "From day one, they opened their arms. They welcomed me. This was probably the craziest and most special year of my career."

Zach Collins showed flashes of elite defensive ability and came into his own.

Seth Curry proved he belongs in the rotation or starting lineup of any NBA team, just years after he was in and out of the developmental league.

Lillard and McCollum asserted their place among the NBA's elite, with Lillard etching his name once again into franchise lore.

Leonard had his share of cheap beers after career-best performances, transforming from the lighting rod for fans' frustrations into a cult hero who drew cheers every time he touched the ball.

I mean, seriously. If someone had told you Blazers fans would be chanting Meyers Leonard's name in the Western Conference finals against Golden State, you'd have laughed them out of the room.

That's the kind of magic that emerged from Portland's postseason run. The Blazers took a step toward championship contention in the most fun way possible, inspiring followers to believe again.

For the guys on the roster, it appears to be something not often experienced in the modern NBA: legitimate friendship and camaraderie with teammates built over the span of a few years. Even the new guys brought into the fold became part of that mind-set.

"It was a blessing," veteran guard/forward Evan Turner said. "To go from a playoff caliber team to a championship caliber team, it's a blessing. It's all built off real teamwork, unity, having tunnel vision and encouraging each other throughout all the playoffs. We had different players that were able to shine in different ways."

Books won't be written about the 2018-19 Trail Blazers. Documentarians won't interview members of this team 30 years down the line to reflect on what made them great. Those things are reserved for the guys on the other side of Monday's game, marching towards another signature moment in their dynasty.

But this Blazers team mattered to a city for which it is the constant heartbeat. Whatever happens to the roster in the coming months — free agents leaving, players traded, rotations shuffled — this team will be remembered.

I know I won't forget it. I grew up watching the Blazers, and this season shapes how I will think about the team and its history. The last few weeks — covering my hometown team in the NBA playoffs, stepping into the arena for the first time as a member of the media — have been a blur.

I remember how I felt when Greg Oden's knees derailed his promising career, and when Brandon Roy's did the same.

I remember Roy's playoff performance against Dallas, and I remember Lillard's game-winner against Houston in 2014.

I'll always remember standing in frozen shock on press row — mouth agape — as I filmed Lillard's 37-footer from my phone and felt the earth shake around me.

Portland will remember this team, even though it came up short of a conference and NBA title. It will be a conversation piece over beers for the next few months and probably long after.

Who knows? Maybe the next time Leonard is having a drink in the locker room in late May, it will be champagne.


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