THE TRANSCONTINENTAL NIGHT AWAITED. The Portland Trail Blazers have their own plane—Blazer One—so they would be saved the cramped legs and the baggage check-ins of normal commercial travel, but they still would spend a lot of time in the air. This was late Sunday afternoon. They were going home from Boston.
"How many hours is this going to take?" guard Terry Porter asked. "Seven?"
"Five and a half," forward Jerome Kersey said. "Maybe five."
"Six," trainer Mike Shimensky said. "We're probably going to have to stop for fuel in Billings, Montana. Headwinds."
"Six and a half," Kersey decided.
There had been a chance that this was going to be the longest trip of a mostly wonderful Blazer season, but now the hours did not seem to matter so much. The talk would be easy. Dinner would be a pleasure. A four-game losing streak, Portland's longest in two years, had been stopped with a 116-107 win over the Celtics in Boston Garden. Traveling into a headwind isn't so bad when you have the best record in basketball. The Blazers were still the best. Let everyone else push and jockey from behind. The Blazers would handle the headwind. Happily.
"Why are you wearing a sweatsuit for the trip?" Porter asked coach Rick Adelman. "Is this a new rule? If we win we can wear sweats; if we lose, we have to wear the suit and tie?"
"That's the new rule," Adelman said.
"Nobody told me. I'm wearing the suit and tie."
"Switch into the sweats. Be comfortable."
The four losses in a row had been a sudden change. For four months, all of this NBA season, the Blazers had ridden a comet of success. They won their first 11 games, 19 of their first 20, and looked as if they would break records. A normal ebb had reduced the flow of such grand ideas, but first place still seemed to be a cinch. The four losses in a row took away the cinch. The Chicago Bulls were now tied with the Blazers for fewest losses. The Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers had moved to within one loss. The Lakers? The best record was not a cinch. Even the Pacific Division wasn't a cinch.
Things had gone bad in a hurry. A goodbye game in Portland had slipped away to the San Antonio Spurs 95-88. A 27-point first half in San Antonio had doomed the start of the trip, leading to a 102-101 overtime loss to the Spurs. Atlanta? The Hawks were flying 117-109. Philadelphia? The 76ers couldn't have played better, 121-111. A subtle balance seemed to have been lost. Somehow.
"It's a tough time of the year," guard Clyde Drexler said. "You go out on the road. You're playing teams that made the playoffs a year ago. Teams are starting to click right about now. You're playing teams that are clicking."
"When you start the way we started, teams are waiting for you," Adelman said. "You find that everyone is ready to play. You just see it, the way they come out."
A loss in Boston would have meant a return to the ordinary, a return to the pack. The tortoises would have started to clomp on past while the hare wondered why it wasn't getting enough foul calls. There was a meeting on Saturday night. Just the players. Dinner. Just to talk. There was a communal vow to go strong to the basket at every opportunity, to finish off with a dunk for emphasis. There was no panic, but there was concern. A win was needed. There was a win.
The biggest shot probably came from reserve guard Danny Ainge, a former Celtic, with 1:23 left. It was a weird piece of business. The 24-second clock had clicked down to :04 when Ainge went into the air. He was sealed to the right, so he shot with his left hand. A nine-foot jumper. The basket gave the Blazers a six-point lead. Boston never again came closer than four.
"You knew he was going to take a shot with his left," Drexler shouted in the locker room. "Larry Bird had made one with his left, so you knew Danny was going to take one too."
"That makes him one of 26 with his left this year," Adelman said. "That's a good percentage."
"Yeah, one of 26," Porter agreed.
The locker room talk was easy. The pressure of losing was lifted. The road trip was done. There were no illusions that one win meant a championship or even a single step to a championship, but it did mean a good today and a good tonight and a good tomorrow, when no game was scheduled. Victories during an 82-game regular season bring no more than a pleasant state of mind. This was a pleasant state of mind. The ordinary still belonged to other people for at least another day.
"Don't you be talking to me about left hands," Ainge told Porter. "I've got a better left hand than you."
"What?" Porter asked.
"You heard me. In fact, where's my five bucks from that game of H-O-R-S-E the other day? You know we played. Don't look at me that way. At the shootaround? Lefthanded? Get it up."
"Don't get amnesia on me now. Get it up."
Off into the headwind. Still in front. It might not be the best place to be at any time except the end, but it certainly feels best.