CJ McCollum made his return to the lineup and the Portland Trail Blazers took advantage of a short-handed foe, rallying in the fourth quarter to defeat the Denver Nuggets 115-108 Sunday night at the Moda Center.
Having already clinched home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, Mike Malone elected to rest his top three players and gave the night off to Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray, despite still being very much in the thicket for seeding. That left little resistance to a Blazer squad that played this team tightly with those guys just two nights ago. Still, to Denver’s credit, they played Portland tight and even looked like they might steal the win until a Blazer run led by Damian Lillard. who led all scorers with 30 points, and Al-Farouq Aminu, who quietly turned in one of his best performances of the season with 23 points and 11 boards, managed to turn the tides.
As teased by the team yesterday, McCollum re-joined the starting lineup and saw his first action since suffering a knee sprain against the San Antonio Spurs that sidelined him for three weeks. He was cautiously limited to just 25 minutes, where he looked expectedly rusty, finishing with 9 points on 3-13 shooting, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. He’ll need all the time to get acclimated as he can get, and with with the Blazers finishing the season on a back-to-back, it’s not even guaranteed McCollum will see the floor in both before being thrust into a playoff series.
The win improves the Blazers to 51-29 as they continue to sit in fourth place, one and a half games behind the Houston Rockets, who beat up on the Phoenix Suns earlier. With just two games left on the docket, the second seed is probably out of reach, but with a challenging road matchup against a similarly desperate Oklahoma City Thunder looming for Houston, and the head-to-head tiebreaker belonging to Portland, there’s a chance for the Blazers to move as high as third.
Even with L.A.’s upset over the Utah Jazz tonight, I don’t see Portland dropping games to either the Lakers or Kings, both of whom are probably watching more film on Zion Williamson than the Blazers, but if the unlikely happens, the absolute worst we could see them drop down to would be the fifth seed, which would mean losing their own home court advantage.
How desirable any of these outcomes ultimately are is still mostly a crapshoot. Remaining in fourth place or dropping down to fifth brings a likely matchup with the Jazz, who are rolling as of late and will be a tough out for anybody. Passing up the Rockets into third place could mean hosting any of the Thunder, Spurs, or Los Angeles Clippers, who are all presently in virtual gridlock. I’m not sure there’s a right answer - pick your poison.
The Blazers will get a couple days of rest before hosting the corpse of the Los Angeles Lakers in the penultimate game of the season, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.