By Joe Freeman

The Oregonian

PORTLAND — After the final shot of the Western Conference finals left Damian Lillard’s fingertips and ricocheted off the rim, 20,064 Blazermaniacs gasped at the Moda Center, Stephen Curry sprinted around the court in celebration, and the Portland Trail Blazers had to finally accept a harsh reality.

Their magical season was over.

But a hopeful future had only just begun.

Because while most saw the Blazers’ best season in 19 years end with a buzzer-beating brick — and a painful 119-117 overtime loss to the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors — the reality is that this inspirational, fun-to-watch run only reinforced the franchise’s long-held internal belief that this team, led by this nucleus, is capable of achieving special things.

So as the Blazers walked away from their season Monday night, the wounds of a disappointing sweep still fresh, they could not help but focus on the tantalizing possibilities of the future.

“In the past, a lot of people … didn’t really believe this was a real possibility,” Lillard said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, they’re going to make the playoffs. They’re going to make some noise. Second round. Blah, blah, blah, blah.’ But now it’s like, ‘OK, this the Western Conference finals.’ I think we’ve shown we’re capable. We can get it done. And I think our route here was as hard as anybody’s. We played the Thunder. Great team. We played Denver. A great team. It wasn’t like we just eased our way in and mistakenly got here. We earned this.

“We showed that this is who we are.”

Lillard has long said he thought his team was poised for greatness, that it had the potential to challenge for NBA Finals berths and compete for championships. And while many scoffed, dismissing his determination as stubborn and silly dreaming, it turns out he was right all along.

The Blazers opened the season with many prognosticators predicting they would take a step backward, perhaps even miss the playoffs. The popular refrain was that a backcourt featuring C.J. McCollum and Lillard needed to be split apart for the Blazers to push for postseason greatness. The complementary pieces were too streaky, too fragile, too unreliable. But the Blazers dismissed those criticisms to reach the conference finals for just the seventh time in franchise history, adding believers and bandwagon-hoppers at every turn.

It was anything but easy, of course, as they had to overcome the sudden death of their owner, the temporary late-season loss of McCollum, the season-ending injury to Jusuf Nurkic and a serious car accident to Jonathan Yim, their well-liked video coordinator/player development coach.

But the doubt and difficulties only hardened them, only reinforced their togetherness. Fueled by another late-season surge, they snatched the third seed in the Western Conference and entered the playoffs with a unique resolve that ultimately inspired a city. They thumped the trash-talking Thunder with a 37-foot Dame dagger. They neutralized the Nuggets with a double-overtime thriller. They overcame a 3-2 deficit against Denver with a series-clinching Game 7 Mother’s Day victory, after which McCollum hugged his mother, a fitting conclusion as he cemented his place in Rip City lore.

Along the way, there were gutsy performances from Enes Kanter, who played through a separated shoulder and Ramadan fast. There were inspirational outings from Rodney Hood, who had a breakout in the conference semifinals to erase his past postseason failures. There was Evan Turner owning the moment in that make-or-break Game 7. There was Moe Harkless frustrating Oklahoma City’s vaunted All-Stars. There was Zach Collins delivering in big moments against the Nuggets’ bigs.

And, of course, it all ended with two surreal games from Meyers Leonard, who silenced seven years of doubters by helping the Blazers push the three-time NBA champions until that last-second shot in overtime fell short.

“I’m glad about the fight,” Hood said. “We’re resilient. We just kept fighting. We have a team full of fighters.”

That the last fight came against the Warriors was fitting, because, in the end, they showed the Blazers what championship mettle looks like and offered a firsthand illustration of what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the sport. The games are more physical, the mental grind more challenging, the pace and power more intense. A brief lapse of even five minutes can sink a game. And one game can sink a series.

The Blazers held leads of 17, 18 and 17 points, respectively, in the final three games of the series. They could not muster a single win.

But while the history books will show a sweep, the Blazers will remember how close they were, how far they pushed the champions, and stew over the what-ifs. What if they had not blown that eight-point lead with 4:28 left in Game 2? What if they had not crumbled in the second half of Game 3? What if they had been able to outlast overtime in Game 4?

What if they had a healthy Nurkic?

The Warriors have won three of the last four NBA championships and will play in the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive season. But they did not become champions overnight. For the Blazers, it turns out those excruciating first-round exits of the previous two seasons were merely setting the table. You have to take a few lumps to ascend to the top.

The Warriors, who know that all too well, walked off the Moda Center floor Monday night with a sweep. But they also walked away with a newfound respect for a resilient group that coach Steve Kerr called “one of my favorite teams to watch.”

“I know this city loves its team and they should love this version of this team as much as any of them,” Kerr said. “Because they are a great group. We had to fight and scrap. In the end it’s a sweep, but we had to scrap and claw for three of the four victories. This was more difficult than it may have appeared.”

Unlike the last two years, when successful seasons were shuttered early, the Blazers were eager to celebrate the end rather than lament it this time around.

In the postgame locker room, Leonard stood in front of his stall shirtless, guzzling a can of cold Coors Light. Collins was bragging to teammates about his prowess in the video game NBA 2K. Hood could not leave for the night without stopping short of the door to tease Aminu as he conducted interviews.

The Blazers’ season ended with a sweep against champions.

But there was a feeling it was the beginning rather than the end.

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