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Trail Blazers' Fourth Straight Loss Sets Up Kings' Return to the Playoffs
A genuinely cool moment in a stretch to forget in Portland.
PORTLAND, Ore. — The most consequential thing that's going to happen the rest of the Trail Blazers' season happened on Wednesday night, and the home team were but bystanders to it.
The final result—a 120-80 blowout loss to the Kings—was par for the course for this part of the season. The "LIGHT THE BEAM" chants that rained down in the final minutes, though, made it memorable.
Kings fans have always traveled well in my experience. Portland is less than a half-day's drive from Sacramento, so you'll always see a good amount of Chris Webber, Jason Williams and DeMarcus Cousins jerseys in the crowd. But when the franchise that's been the biggest joke in the NBA since the end of the Webber era has finally found its way back to relevance, the Kings fans at the Moda Center are even more noticeable.
With Wednesday's win, Sacramento clinched its first playoff berth in 17 years. Where were you in spring of 2006? I was a sophomore in high school, and so was Damian Lillard (we're the same age). Shaedon Sharpe, who scored a career-high 30 points, was approaching his third birthday. The Blazers, coached at the time by Nate McMillan, were coming off a 21-61 season. That June, they'd draft LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy.
Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups was still in Detroit with Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace. Their perpetual playoff rivals, a Cleveland Cavaliers team led by a very young LeBron James, were coached by Mike Brown, who has overseen this year's incredible Kings turnaround in his first season in Sacramento and is a virtual lock to win Coach of the Year.
"I think it's awesome," Billups said before the game. He's known Brown since high school, when he would attend camps Brown was involved with when he was a member of the Nuggets organization.
Two of the most memorable games I've ever covered involved the Kings.
One was in 2015, when I was still on the Bulls beat. The Kings played in Chicago shortly before the All-Star break, with rumors swirling that head coach Ty Corbin was about to be fired and replaced by George Karl. Corbin himself had replaced Michael Malone, the only coach DeMarcus Cousins ever got along with, who was inexplicably fired midseason. After Corbin was named interim head coach, the Kings went the extra step of removing the interim tag and naming him the permanent head coach—only to fire him weeks later and hire Karl, over Cousins' objections. They played the Bulls the night all of this came to a head, and Corbin handled the entire thing a lot better than I would have in that spot.
Four years later, the Kings played in Portland to close out the 2018-19 season. Terry Stotts sat his regulars, insisting it wasn't to game the standings and avoid Oklahoma City, who had swept the Blazers in their four regular-season matchups (no one believed him). He played six players: Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard, Jake Layman, Skal Labissiere, Gary Trent Jr. and a little-seen rookie guard named Anfernee Simons. Sacramento built a 25-point lead at halftime, only for Kings coach Dave Joerger to pull his starters for the entire second half, leading to a Blazers comeback behind Simons' 37 points. (Joerger was fired the next day.) This accidentally set up the Blazers' first-round matchup with the Thunder, which culminated in the defining moment of Lillard's career, that series-ending buzzer-beater.
The Kings' plight over the last 17 years is a reminder to Blazers fans that it can always be worse. This year's turnaround is a reminder that things can change quickly.
I haven't written much since the Blazers waved the white flag on the season a week ago. There isn't much to say. You know what these final seven games are going to be. I have a lot of ideas for the offseason, and a lot of things to ask Joe Cronin when he meets with reporters in a couple weeks after the end of the season. I'll be in Chicago in May for the lottery and draft combine. In the meantime, enjoy genuinely cool things like the Kings returning to the playoffs.