The Portland Trail Blazers will be facing the Golden State Warriors for the third time in the last four years of the NBA Playoffs, thanks to a clutch performance by one CJ McCollum in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets. Damian Lillard, who led the charge in the first round against Oklahoma City, struggled for much of the series against Denver, including a 3-17 shooting performance in the finale—but his backcourt mate was there to carry the scoring load when the team needed it most.
ESPN’s Royce Young writes the that clutch play of McCollum, especially in wake of Lillard’s shooting slump, could be a difference maker in this year’s Western Conference Finals against the two-time defending champs.
Per Young’s recent piece,
Winning a Game 7 on the road is difficult, but the consensus was that the Blazers had a chance because they have Lillard. Despite all the iconic playoff moments he’s accruing, Lillard had never played in a Game 7. It was pretty easy to prewrite the “Dame 7” headline, to anticipate some level of greatness for Lillard to unsheathe.
Instead, he started 0-of-6 from the floor and didn’t score for the first 18 minutes of the game. The Blazers fell behind by 17 points in the first half. To that point, Portland had 22 points and CJ McCollum had more than half of them.
But it takes everybody. The Blazers are far more than a superstar-driven team. Lillard credits everybody -- the trainers, the coaches, the front office, the security personnel, the PR staff. If Lillard is the heart of Portland, McCollum controls the body temperature. And as Game 7 eventually tightened and the Blazers climbed back, it was McCollum who had the burden of taking them to the finish line.
Young also got McCollum’s own assessment of his big performance:
McCollum is a master of the midrange, and each push the Nuggets made, McCollum answered. But even with the game of his life -- 37 points on 17-of-29 shooting -- he was critical in his self-assessment. He remembered one play he pump-faked his defender into the air, but didn’t jump into him and draw a foul (“I cost us two points on that possession,” he said), a missed lefty layup and thought he shot one too many 3s.
”Besides that I think I played pretty well,” McCollum said in the understatement of the playoffs. “I wanted to empty the clip tonight and I thought I did that.”
All told, with both McCollum and Lillard picking each other up when the other has an off-night, the Blazers are going to be a tough out against any team—despite the laundry list of obstacles in their way.
The dynamic duo is getting a lot of praise from the national media over the course of this year’s playoffs, and for good reason. As Young puts it, “...They aren’t taking turns; they’re taking over, together”.
You can read Young’s full piece here.