I never called Nick Van Exel shy. Too many jumpers early in shot clocks proved he had no conscience. I never called him timid either. Too many arguments with Del Harris proved that. I also never called him faint-hearted. He had enough street cred to get name-dropped in a song by Jigga. I figured he had a little Cypress Hill in him when he shoved Ron Garretson into the scorer’s table. And busting out “the monkey” midgame, against the Jazz no less (I doubt anyone on that team had even heard of “the monkey”), should’ve been all the evidence needed to sum it up: Van Exel had himself some big ol’ Sam Cassell-sized balls.
Even though Van Exel had the audacity once to go in on my boy J-Will, crying racism, I still had to show him love.
But even he couldn’t face the music. Game 7 at home… in the first round… against the let-out-of-their-cage Blazers… once up 3-0, now facing elimination. That morning, back in 2003 on the first Sunday in May, Van Exel had to hide underneath the covers, safely behind the protective doors of his home.
“I went home and pulled down the blinds,” Van Exel once said. “I didn’t want to be seen. It’s an embarrassing feeling to be up 3-0 and then lose three in a row. But this morning, we couldn’t wait.”
Van Exel wasn’t alone. The Mavs were on the edge of completing the greatest collapse in NBA history. Their heels were off the edge, their toes tightened, their arms were reaching out for something to grab. But just as they started to slip backwards off the cliff, the fourth quarter came, the Blazers didn’t score over the final three minutes, and Van Exel and his boy from Germany did the rest, dropping 57 points.
There have been precious few times in NBA history where a team created any type of drama out of a 3-0 hole. But the Portland Trail Blazers of the 2003 Playoffs nearly pulled off the unthinkable against the 60-win Dallas Mavericks. That Blazer team, led in the playoffs by Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells, went into the final 12 minutes of Game 7 with a two-point lead and a finger on history. After a trey from Wallace, they even had a lead with under five minutes to go. History, oh so close.
For basketball fans, that Blazer team was a full-course meal. Wallace and Wells were talented, mercurial stars who could pout their way to six points and an ejection, or light someone up for 45 (as Wells did in Game 2 of this series). Scottie Pippen gave them that smug “I’ve done it before” attitude. Arvydas Sabonis made them hipster cool. Ruben Patterson and Jeff McInnis made them cooler. Even a young Zach Randolph and Qyntel Woods were coming off the bench taking notes. The most normal guy on that team was Derek Anderson. And all of it coached by Mo Cheeks, which is one of the most hilarious combinations in NBA history. He’s such a nice guy that in Portland’s home playoff opener, he memorably helped a 13-year-old finish the national anthem after she forgot the words.
With all that talent and depth – the Blazers actually used five different starting lineups in seven playoff games, which HAS to be some type of record – Portland was anything but predictable.