It felt like one big collective sigh. All of Portland’s pent up pandemic energy and dread and fear just washing over into waves and cheers and applause. Before the Trail Blazers took to the court for their first home game with fans at the Moda Center since March 2020, there had been a spattering of applause. The 10 percent capacity crowd—just under 2,000—made themselves known with bits of nervous fandom here and there: a quick wave of a Rip City flag, a distant “Beat LA” chant, echoed yips and yays. But by the time the lights dimmed and the Blazers starting lineup— Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic, C.J. McCollum, and Damian Lillard—made their entrance, whatever reservations there had been about a new normal way to watch games had fallen by the wayside. And all that seemed important, all that mattered on that Friday night in Portland—a town that’s currently being shaped by infighting and racial justice protests, grieving under the weight of the coronavirus—was having fun, an idea that, for the past year, has seemed so impossibly difficult. To even feel some semblance of this idea this past year has felt like an admission of privilege, a betrayal, almost, to those that are truly suffering through one of the strangest moments in modern history.
And yet there we were, in cushioned stadium seats while red and white lights circled above our heads, and a man on the megaphone told us to get louder, and the men in grey and black uniforms faced off against the men in blue and white uniforms (the Lakers wore their throwback jerseys to Friday night’s game), and both teams tried to put an orange ball into a little basket, and it was … fun.
A sigh of relief for us, and perhaps the extra push the Blazers needed to eke out a much-needed win on Friday night.
Welcome Back Rip City
The Trail Blazers took home a crucial 106—101 win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night.
The defending champs saw standout performances by Anthony Davis (who’s spent a large portion of the season on the bench dealing with injuries including frequent back spasms), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso, but a season plagued with injuries (Lebron James was noticeably absent with ankle injury that’s kept him in and out of the last few games) and a slow and sloppy start to Friday night’s game did them in. Now in the seventh seed, the Lakers will likely have to fight for a playoff spot during the upcoming play-in tournament, a new, somewhat controversial addition to the NBA (more on that later).
Meanwhile on the home court, the Blazers started off strong with a full court press that caused eight Lakers turnover in the first quarter. After winning four of their last five games (all of which had been on the road) the Blazers controlled the court for most of the game, with their biggest lead in the first quarter at 14 points—and of course with that home court advantage that they haven’t heard in over a year: the crowd. Between Jusuf Nurkic’s return to a home-game crowd, an impassioned battle for sixth seed, and finally hearing the roar of the fans, the night was historic.
After suffering a near career-ending injury in 2019, Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic was all set to make his return to the court for a home game at the Moda Center on March 15, 2020. But, of course, that was upended by a little thing called the coronavirus. The NBA, reading the writing on the wall, suspended the 2019-2020 season on March 11. Though he was able to play in Orlando’s bubble league in an unsuccessful series against the Lakers during the Western Conference playoffs, Nurkic never found his way in front of a Moda Center crowd. In fact, it’s been 774 days since Nurkic had played in front of a crowd at the Moda Center.
In a postgame interview, Nurkic said Friday night’s game was “almost like a debut.” For a debut it wasn’t bad. The big man ended the night with 10 points, 14 rebounds, and five assists.
The Play-In Tournament
At stake during last night’s game was the sixth seed in the Western Conference. It used to be that the top eight seeds in the Western and Eastern conferences at the end of the regular season would make the playoffs, but starting last year, the NBA implemented a version of a new play-in tournament during the bubble league’s restart. Now, and potentially moving forward if the NBA continues to utilize a play-in tournament, only the top six seeds are guaranteed a playoff spot. Seeds seven, eight, nine, and 10 then face off in a four-team play-in tournament to determine who gets the final two playoff spots. This new tournament system has not been without its critics, like James and Dallas Maverick’s star Luca Doncic.
With only a few more games left in the regular season, the Blazers and the Lakers had been tied for the sixth seed. The win for the Blazers on Friday night means they are now sixth seed, with tiebreakers against the Lakers and the Mavericks. The Blazers’s early aggressive defense which garnered six steals and caused 14 Lakers turnovers, helped solidify the team’s win. Plus, Damian Lillard’s 38 field goals, including a couple clutch threes in the fourth quarter, helped seal the deal. (Heck, it may have even been Dame who brought the fans home in the first place, so we owe it to him.)
So we gone be the only damn team in the whole league with no fans .— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) May 4, 2021