On an episode of “Entourage” a few years back, Hollywood super agent Ari Gold stood on the brink of hysteria as blackouts rolled throughout California on the opening day of his star client’s potential blockbuster.
Trying to console him as the projected box-office numbers dipped as a result, Gold’s wife argued that “the town will understand.”
Snapped back Ari: “There are no asterisks in this life! Only scoreboards.”
Which brings us to the Trail Blazers.
Three months ago, Portland devotees most likely thought that draft prospects, not playoff match-ups, would dominate the conversation in early April. Once begging for bread crumbs, this is a fan base that’s now debating whether it can afford the rib eye.
While questions such as “should the Blazers blow it up?” abounded in January, those like “can they beat the Mavericks in the first round?” are the ones being asked now.
But the far bigger, and far less-discussed query is this: “How should Portland define success?”
“You’re asking the wrong person,” said Gerald Wallace when approached with that very question last week. “I don’t really know the trials and tribulations of this team and what they’ve been through.”
Fair point. Before said trials and tribulations, a trip to the second round and possibly the Western Conference Finals was mandatory for this team. Never were the Blazers considered likely to dethrone the Lakers, but the days of “let’s wait and see, what happens” were defunct.
Greg Oden was making progress in his rehab, Brandon Roy was coming into his prime as a superstar. Nicolas Batum was starting his third year, which has proven to be the launching-pad season for the likes of Kevin Durant Derrick Rose.
A banner year didn’t necessarily require a championship banner, but a first-round playoff exit would be a first-class disaster.
Then, other disasters began to trickle in.
When news of Oden and Roy’s knee woes broke last fall, redefining the idea of success was like stuffing the butterfly back into the cocoon. The Blazers’ physical address was One Center Court, but their metaphorical address was Square One.
Coach Nate McMillan said it best when he described the plummeting of expectations as a “pretty picture” suddenly ravaged by a “tornado.” At that point, success was simply putting five players on the court.
But the Blazers would not only find shelter from the tornado, they lassoed it a la Pecos Bill. LaMarcus Aldridge began playing the best basketball of his career en route to earning Player of the Month honors in February. Wesley Matthews’ defense and perimeter shooting made his $34 million contract seem like a bargain. Andre Miller emerged as the undisputed primary ball handler, and Wallace incorporated himself seamlessly into the system.
Now, Portland is 10-5 against playoff-bound teams since the All-Star break. Now, the Blazers are being hailed by Magic Johnson as the would-be “toughest” first-round matchup for the Lakers.
Now, the franchise’s expectations just got a jolt from the defibrillator…which once again brings up the question: What would qualify as a successful season for this team? After all, in sports, the potential for joy is always mirrored by the potential for disappointment.
Logic says that progress can be proven in spite of a first-round playoff loss — that a full season with Wallace will produce better chemistry and a higher playoff seed. But logic is hardly a principle player in sports decisions or satisfaction.
One bad decision has gotten coaches fired. One lucky shot has gotten players traded.
So do the Blazers have to advance to satisfy this fan base? Could Owner Paul Allen accept a third straight year of reaching the postseason only to fall in the first round? Can an early exit be deemed acceptable in a year where even having the opportunity to lose in the playoffs can be seen as a bonus?
Do asterisks exist, or only scoreboards?