The Portland Trail Blazers were the NBA's afterthought.
After getting swept in the first round of the NBA Playoffs last year, the Blazers were the popular pick to miss the postseason this year in a loaded Western Conference.
When their 7-foot center broke his leg in half toward the end of the season, they were the team everyone thought would lose another first-round upset.
When point guard Damian Lillard drained a 37-footer and waved the Oklahoma City Thunder goodbye, and when the Blazers went on to beat the Denver Nuggets in a brutal seven-game series, the reaction from NBA fans outside the Pacific Northwest has been like a hearty pat on the back — "That's cute, but now you're going to get swept by the Warriors."
But it's time for the rest of the country to take heed. This plucky, never-quit cast of underdogs is your team, too. The Golden State Warriors are a Thanos-like inevitable force, and it feels like the Blazers' chances of beating them are one in 14 million. They're the scrappy heroes facing insurmountable odds. And they're the antithesis of this NBA era: As superstars across the league plot ways to form a new superteam, the Blazers are a team that stuck together, kept their heads down and worked hard to make an improbable run.
To have a chance, Lillard will have to go crazy like he did against Oklahoma City. His backcourt partner C.J. McCollum will have to go crazy like he did against the Denver Nuggets. Former Zag Zach Collins (pictured) blossomed last round into a reliable option with starting center Enes Kanter battling a shoulder injury, and Collins will be crucial this series as well. The Blazers forwards will need to make open corner three-pointers, which they sometimes struggled with last round when teams doubled up on Lillard or McCollum. And even then, they'll need to rely on the Warriors' "Splash Brothers," Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, to go dry.
This is real life, and what will probably happen is that the Blazers' magical playoff run won't matter. Maybe they do get swept. Probably, the Warriors will prove their greatness even if they miss injured Kevin Durant for a few games.
But even as someone who's loved watching the Warriors during their run these past few years, I can't help but pull for the Blazers now. They're not an afterthought anymore. They're America's team. For the next two weeks, anyway. ♦