CJ McCollum took the reins from Damian Lillard Sunday afternoon in Memphis, tying his career high with 37 points, and carrying the Portland Trail Blazers to a 100-94 win over the Grizzlies. The win improves Portland’s overall record to 4-3, and caps a short 2-1 road trip.
In what would be the theme of the evening, McCollum opened the game by hitting literally everything he threw at the rim. He shot 4-of-4 (including 2-of-2 from three) to carry the scoring load early. Meanwhile, Lillard showed that he was human, shooting 1-for-4 from the field, with a few trips to the foul line. In another recurring theme this season, Portland started out hot, then gave almost all it back by the end of the quarter. Portland still led 25-22 after the first twelve minutes.
As a fan, coach, and/or player you hope and plan for consistency. However, consistently faltering at the same time in nearly every contest isn’t exactly the kind of consistency anyone should be aiming for. Portland’s reserves started the second quarter and almost immediately surrendered control of the game. As hot as McCollum was in the first, he was equally cold in the second. Lillard was able to rescue the quarter with a few trips to the free throw line, but the good guys were down 51-47 at the half.
For seemingly the first time this season, the Blazers came out and didn’t crumble under the weight of second-half adjustments. McCollum got back on track and his teammates attacked the rim with impunity, getting to the line 12 times and making 11 freebies. Memphis managed to stay tight with timely 3-point shooting, but the Blazers looked the aggressor heading into the final period down one, 77-76.
McCollum might’ve taken the whole “Memphis BBQ” thing a bit to seriously as he absolutely basted, slow roasted, and chewed up the Grizzlies in the fourth quarter. Poor Chandler Parsons made his debut for Memphis tonight and time after time he found himself having to cover McCollum on the perimeter. The only thing Parsons had going for him is the death of Vine, because he got clipped over and over again:
Christian James McCollum is putting on a clinic in Memphis! pic.twitter.com/D7VjRXoQF6— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) November 6, 2016
After some early back and forth, McCollum took control – dropping 16 points in the quarter. He was backed up by Maurice Harkless, who acquitted himself quite well shooting 3-of-4, with four rebounds, a steal, a block and seven points in the period. Together McCollum and Harkless were able to snuff out any chance of a Memphis comeback, and the Grizzlies rolled over and showed their bellies as they let time run out for the final 20+ seconds. Blazers win, 100-94.
Can the Blazers win if Damian Lillard isn’t in full-blown Super-Saiyan mode? Apparently, yes. That is, of course, if his backcourt counterpart can catch fire, as well.
It was great to see McCollum break out, not just because Portland needed it against Memphis, but simply because he hasn’t looked truly comfortable early on this year. Whether it’s feeling out his role after adding in Evan Turner or taking a bit of a back seat so Lillard can really take over, McCollum hasn’t looked like he’s in his sweet spot. Of course all of that changed Sunday afternoon as he was hitting on all cylinders, particularly when he was torturing Memphis’ defense from the left wing.
The hidden gem was Maurice Harkless. While the Blazers can probably count on 50+ points per game from the McLillard duo, they appear to be searching for that third guy on a nightly basis. Over the last three games, Harkless has contributed over 13 points a night, along with steady 3-point shooting and the most consistent defense of anyone on the roster. Portland needed every bit of his 18 points against Memphis, and his defense was key in igniting the Blazers in the second half.
Speaking of defense, Portland’s was opportunistic and more “bend” than “break.” While the somewhat-predictable early bench woes popped up, the Blazers didn’t themselves such a huge hole that they were unable to recover. Timely forced turnovers and defensive stops triggered early and easier scoring opportunities, and both run-outs and straight line drives to the rim were turned into free throws. While there’s still a giant “work in progress” sign hanging above the Blazers’ defense, the in-game adjustments and execution were markedly better.
While McCollum’s breakthrough is certainly worth celebrating, the Blazers’ bench still remains out in the ether. In a combined 71 minutes of play, the reserves registered 11 points on nine shots. The bright light coming from this game was Ed Davis. Even though he didn’t deliver much in the way of the boxscore, he was praised by Portland coach Terry Stotts for his interior defense against the likes of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
The hero of the evening was clearly McCollum. On a night when Lillard shot 3-for-11 from the field, someone needed to step up and fill the void. McCollum’s 37 points and 6-for-12 performance from behind the arc carried Portland to victory, but also helped alleviate some concerns about whether or not the Blazers could play well when their All-NBA guard wasn’t hitting.
Lillard struggled from the field tonight and found himself hitting the floor a couple times. Notably, he got knocked back and landed awkwardly on his left hand, and the fall left him in visible pain for quite a while. Lillard wasn’t effective from the floor shooting-wise, but he got to the the line for 11 free throws, sinking all of them. Realizing that he didn’t have it, he was great at setting the table for his teammates, with one pass standing out above all others:
Spearheading a lot of the defensive effort tonight was Harkless. He finished with a game best plus/minus of +17 behind his 18 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal. As previously mentioned, Harkless is making a case for being Portland’s third offensive option on a nightly basis.
Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner will earn, roughly, a combined $35 million on the season. Tonight they played 48 minutes total, registering six points, three rebounds, four assists, one steal, one block, five fouls and a -5 plus/minus. While Turner has been the subject of early season questions, Crabbe is quickly moving his way up that list, too. On a night when Lillard wasn’t at his best, Portland could’ve really used a larger contribution from the guys they paid so much this offseason.
The folks over at Grizzly Bear Blues have the view from the other side.
Up next, the Trail Blazers get a rematch with the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night in Portland at 7:00 p.m. PST.