Believe it or not, the Portland Trail Blazers were playing basketball two years ago today.
No, it wasn’t the NBA Summer League or some pointless trip. Portland was playing high-level basketball with postseason implications. The basketball that made Damian Lillard work as a man.
In the year On July 31, 2020, the Blazers played their first game of the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida. A 140-135 overtime win against the Memphis Grizzlies was thrilling.
The 2019-2020 NBA restart in Orlando was the league’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak, four months after it was shut down in March and at a time when there was no vaccine available. But as the old saying goes, the show must go on and everyone loves money. Thus Bubbles – located at Walt Disney World – was born.
Beginning in late July and ending with the Los Angeles Lakers championship in October, the bubble is one of the strangest basketball environments ever seen. Live fans were not allowed in, so they were shown on large video boards. A muffled roar blared through the stadium speakers. And players can’t leave campus or have any physical contact with the outside world — even if they’re just getting Uber Eats.
The bubble allowed 22 teams to enter, with 16 teams in the playoffs and an additional 6 teams 6 games or less behind their conference’s eighth seed. Everyone and their mother’s shooting percentages are way up because they don’t have a deep understanding of big arenas and noisy environments. Along with many changes, the NBA has introduced an exciting pregame format for the first time.
After months of being banned from any live sports content, the holidays were fun to watch, at least for this writer.
The Blazers enter Orlando with a 29-37 record — 3 1⁄2 games behind Memphis for the eighth seed — and a slew of history. The start of the bubble saw the return of Blazers big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, who hadn’t appeared in an NBA game in eight months of 16 months. The NBA has encouraged teams like Portland to be in playoff contention by setting up a potential playoff race between the eighth and ninth seeds in each conference. And Lillard says he’ll only go to Orlando if Portland has a shot at the playoffs, a feat that got Portland there for the seventh straight season.
The Blazers, so far behind Memphis, have created a razor-thin margin of error and exceptional strength for Portland’s eight “seed games.” It all started in the first game against Memphis on July 31st.
Former Blazer CJ McCollum leads Portland with 33 points. Lillard, alone, scored 29 in the upcoming Wild Show. And Gary Trent Jr. has started one of the hottest shooting streaks of his young career with four triples and 17 points off the bench.
The title of “hero of the game” may have to go to Carmelo Anthony, who scored 21 points off the bench. Melo, in one of his brightest moments as a Blazer, knocked down two crucial three pointers in the final 90 seconds to send Portland to overtime.
The Blazers went on an 11-0 OT run to survive the Grizzlies’ comeback victory.
Portland finishes seeding play with a 6-2 record, many of them playing in similar, heart-pounding fashion. Lillard was named the co-MVP of the bubble after averaging 37.6 points and 9.6 assists over eight playoff games.
Portland must win its last three games by a combined seven points, and Lillard has scored a total of 154 points in those games alone. It was enough to end the Blazers as the eighth seed in the playoff race, setting up a rematch with the young Grizzlies and rookie star Jay Morant.
Morant and the Grizzlies are contenders today, but back then, Portland ended Lillard’s playoff mission and sent the young guns 126-122.
Ultimately, Portland’s streak ended with a blistering first-round setback. The Blazers fell to the eventual champion Lakers in five games.
But bubble basketball still provided Blazers fans with exciting games and Damian Lillard’s all-time great performances.
Two years later, the event serves as an interesting time capsule of the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fans, what do you remember about Portland’s run in Orlando? Tell us in the comments below!