Oh, so close
Watching "The Last Dance," ESPN's 10-part series documenting Michael Jordan's career and 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, has been intriguing for Terry Porter.
It brings back memories of a time that was both a high point and a point of frustration for the former Trail Blazers' guard, whose Portland teams were among the NBA's elite when Jordan's Bulls began their run of six championships.
It's not only the episode that included the Bulls' 1992 NBA Finals win over the Blazers that reminded Porter of opportunities missed, of how close his team came to winning it all.
"It brings back a lot of great memories," Porter said. "It also brings back the sadness of coming up short."
Porter, entering his fifth season coaching men's basketball at the University of Portland, played in Portland for the first 10 of his 17 NBA seasons and was the starting point guard for Blazers' teams that came close to winning it all three years in a row starting with the 1989-90 season.
Between the 1989-90 and 1992-93 seasons, the Blazers — featuring a starting five of Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, Kevin Duckworth and Porter — were 230-98 in regular-season games and had the best record in the 1990-91 season. They won eight playoff series during that run, just not the finals.
"The city was just electric," Porter recalled. "It had a buzz about it during those years."
For all of the excitement, Porter admits "The Last Dance" has reminded him of some what-ifs. Among those are an ill-fated three-on-one fast break in the 1991 Western Conference Finals, big fourth quarter shots by Detroit's Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson in the 1990 finals, and the Bulls' unexpected rally to clinch the title in 1992.
"The Last Dance" showed only a couple snippets from the 1990 finals, but did show the Pistons celebrating the championship in a Memorial Coliseum locker room.
Porter remembers every game in that 1990 series was close. Portland let a lead slip away late in Game 1 and won Game 2 at Detroit in overtime. With the next three games at Memorial Coliseum, there was plenty of optimism. Portland had the NBA's best home-court advantage, but the Pistons took all three games to close out the series.
"Most people would have bet their house that wouldn't have happened," Porter said. "I don't think we lost three games in a row at home in that whole stretch (of seasons)."
In the pivotal Game 4, Porter three times gave Portland a lead with fourth-quarter shots and the Blazers led by a point inside the last minute, but Thomas' jumper proved to be the difference.
"Give them credit. They made the big shots," Porter said. "Our guys didn't make big shots in that series. I don't think I hit any big shots in those games."
Those were the "Bad Boys" Pistons known for their physical style. Their approach was to knock opponents to the court whenever possible. The Blazers were at times frustrated with officials' calls, Porter recalled. But they were not intimidated by Detroit's rough approach, he said.
Under today's rules, Porter noted with a chuckle that those Pistons teams would create a steady stream of video reviews for flagrant fouls.
Coming so close to a title in 1990 motivated the 1990-91 Trail Blazers.
"All we talked about was getting back to the finals," Porter said, remembering an offseason of intense workouts.
The Blazers appeared poised for a title run after starting the 1990-91 season 19-1 (including two wins over Jordan and the Bulls) on their way to a league-best 63-19 regular season.
"If I got to have one year to go back and replay, it would be that year," Porter said.
But the Lakers beat the Blazers in the Western Conference Finals by taking Game 1 in Portland and holding on for a one-point win in Game 6 at Los Angeles. Late in that game, a three-on-one fast break for Porter, Kersey and Cliff Robinson ended in a turnover.
"We had a chance, I think, to take a one-point lead with me, Jerome and Cliff," Porter said, sounding like it's a vivid memory. "Breakdowns like those are the ones you think about."
Had the Blazers faced the Bulls in the 1991 finals, who knows? Jordan led Chicago to its first title by beating Magic Johnson's Lakers in five games. But might Portland's experience from 1990 been an advantage over a Chicago team in the finals for the first time?
By the time 1992 rolled around, Jordan was in his prime and put it to the Blazers to the tune of 36 points a game in the Finals.
The episode of "The Last Dance" that includes the Bulls-Blazers finals focused on Jordan using the matchup with Drexler as motivation. The episode didn't mention that the Blazers took a 16-point lead into the fourth quarter of Game 6 at Chicago Stadium, that the Bulls bench (particularly a 3-pointer from little-used journeyman guard Bob Hansen) sparked a 33-14 fourth quarter burst as the Bulls clinched their second title.
"All we needed was a 2- or 3-minute stretch where we held our own and it would have forced Game 7," Porter recalled.
Those memories aside, Porter is fascinated by "The Last Dance" and its behind-the-curtain look at the personalties and drama of the 1997-98 Bulls as they made their final championship run.
"I'm intrigued about it. The things that are going on within their team, there's a lot of stuff you didn't know," Porter said.
A former NBA head coach (with Milwaukee and Phoenix) and assistant coach, Porter pointed to one head-scratching story from "The Last Dance": Dennis Rodman being granted time off in the middle of the season to vacation in Las Vegas.
"I can't imagine a player coming to me and asking for a vacation," Porter said.
"The Last Dance" is largely a tribute to Michael Jordan, but Porter sees the program as a time capsule that demonstrates how the NBA evolved.
Yes, the game, like all sports, evolved significantly over the last three decades, he said. But Porter remembers the NBA of the 1990s — when the league had fewer teams and smaller rosters — as intensely competitive, dramatic and entertaining as the modern game.
"It was just a different era of basketball," Porter said. "I was blessed to play in the time I played in. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
"The Last Dance" continues with the seventh and eighth parts 6 p.m. Sunday on ESPN; the ninth and 10th parts will air the following Sunday.
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