The Trail Blazers secured a trip to the Western Conference Finals with a spirited 100-96 victory over the Nuggets in a winner-take-all Game 7. Buoyed by a heroic 37-point outburst from CJ McCollum, the Blazers survived a less-than-ideal shooting night on the road to oust the Nuggets from the postseason. Along with McCollum’s output, Portland’s performance was fueled by contributions from Evan Turner and Zach Collins. For the Nuggets, Jokic’s 29 points came up short of sending an experienced Blazers squad back tp Portland with a loss.
It was a game that Rip City won’t forget. The Blazers overcame a double-digit lead, an off night from Lillard and Rodney Hood’s knee injury to hold off the Nuggets to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in nearly two decades.
To say the Blazers started ice cold from beyond the arc would be an understatement. Lillard once again had Torrey Craig glued to him on the perimeter. With a defender within reach at all times, Lillard struggled to find opportunities to get in rhythm. Outside of Lillard, Al-Farouq Aminu and Hood failed to convert open three-point attempts of their own. McCollum finally took the lid off the basket in the second quarter. Even after CJ’s conversion, the Blazers headed to the locker room with a 1-14 mark from distance.
Portland’s poor shooting coupled with Denver’s determination to push the pace to create a sizable scoring margin. The Nuggets routinely got into their offense early in the shot clock and exploited favorable matchups. Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Jokic look unbeatable during Denver’s successful run in the first half. At one point, the Nuggets’ lead ballooned to 17 points.
Minimizing the Damage
Even as the misses piled up, the Blazers did an excellent job of controlling what they could. Portland could have easily compounded its frustrations with turnovers. Instead, they committed just three turnovers in the first half. Outside of minimizing mistakes, the Blazers fought for every rebound. This series featured a bevy of dominating performances from the Nuggets on the glass, but coach Terry Stotts’ squad managed to stay in striking distance by keeping the rebounding margin tight.
After trailing by double-digits for long stretches, the Blazers finished the second quarter down by nine. In the first half, they clung to a slim 28-27 rebounding advantage.
Rally Starts, Rodney Exits
Fueled by McCollum’s offense, the Blazers continued to chip away at the Nuggets’ lead in the third quarter. Instead of sticking with the traditional starters, Stotts turned to Collins and Hood to start the second half. Portland’s revamped five-man unit successfully navigated Denver’s offensive scheme and exploited mismatches on the other end.
The Blazers cut the lead to three points thanks to a midrange jumper from Enes Kanter, but all the momentum that had built to that point hung in the balance as Hood crumpled to the ground with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter. A mid-court screen led to Hood tweaking his knee. With Hood sidelined, Collins picked up his fifth personal foul while attempting to stymie a 5-on-4 Nuggets advantage.
Moe Harkless had other plans for that moment. After going scoreless in the first half, Harkless kept the momentum in Portland’s favor with six unlikely points.
McCollum faced tough matchups throughout the game, but managed to rise above the Nuggets’ pressure to provide points in huge moments. With the game on the line, CJ delivered a pair of contested midrange buckets. Despite being blanketed by the outstretched arms of Torrey Craig, McCollum delivered a crucial lead-preserving basket with 12.4 seconds remaining. Now down by three, the Nuggets failed to produce a quality look in the game’s final moments.
Prior to his late-game offense, McCollum provided another highlight-worthy play with his defense. In a four-point game with under five minutes to go, McCollum rushed back in transition to stuff Jamal Murray at the rim.
No Rhythm, No Problem
Regardless of a rough shooting performance, Lillard delivered in several different areas. He fought for rebounds against larger opponents and invaded the Nuggets’ passing lanes. Along with his hustle, Lillard did a superb job of setting up his teammates. He finished the night just two assists short of a triple-double.
Evan Turner’s nightmarish postseason officially came to a close in Game 7. Despite going scoreless in his last four outings, Turner produced 14 points on Sunday. He saved his best for last, scoring 12 of his 14 in the second half. When the action switched to the free throw line, Turner’s steady hand connected on eight of his nine attempts from the charity stripe.
Kanter returned to the double-double club with 12 points and 13 rebounds. The most important rebound of his 13 came just before the one-minute mark in the fourth quarter. Kanter prevented Jokic from nabbing his own miss, allowing the Blazers to dictate the action in the final minute.
Collins’ point total was lower than his previous two games, but his impact was just as important. The second-year big man took turns frustrating Millsap and Jokic en route to four blocks. He finished with seven points and five rebounds in 23 minutes of action.
Meyers Leonard made a cameo appearance as a Jokic-stopper in Game 7. He only registered seven minutes, but he did his best to give Jokic fits during that stretch.
The Blazers will move on to face the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Golden State finished the regular season with a 57-25 record and will control home-court advantage in the upcoming series.