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CJ McCollum is Critical to the Blazers’ Attack vs. Denver

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Damian Lillard still stirs the drink, but his backcourt partner fills it up.

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to the New Orleans Pelicans’ approach in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, the Denver Nuggets are committed to make a Portland Trail Blazers player other than Damian Lillard beat them. Lillard torched the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs – averaging 33 points on 46.1% field goal shooting and 48.1% three-point shooting. In the second round, Denver made the proper adjustment of staying tight on Lillard along the perimeter and relying on help defense to keep him out of the lane. In four games of the semifinals, the All-NBA guard is averaging 27.3 points on 42.9% field goal and 25.7% three-point shooting, a far cry from his remarkable percentages versus OKC, but still impactful nonetheless.

Enter CJ McCollum.

New Orleans managed to prevent Portland’s shooting guard from compensating for his backcourt mate last year, but Denver has not. In this round, McCollum is posting 26.5 points per contest on 43.1% shooting from the field and 39.5% from three. While Lillard’s numbers still best McCollum’s, the latter has developed a tendency to hit timely shots when the offense stagnates.

Case in point: Game 3’s quadruple-overtime thriller in which the Blazers starters each played at least 45 minutes. McCollum, who led the league in total distance run for three consecutive seasons, logged 60 minutes of floor time in the contest. As his teammates tired and overtimes tallied up, the shooting guard utilized an array of dribble moves to create open looks for himself. He notched 18 points across the extended 20 minutes and scored all seven of the team’s points in the first overtime.

McCollum has always been a bucket-getter – ask his brother — but in the playoffs, he’s reached another level of unassisted offense.

McCollum Numbers

Assisted FGs Assisted 3pt FGs Unassisted FGs Unassisted 3pt FGs
Assisted FGs Assisted 3pt FGs Unassisted FGs Unassisted 3pt FGs
266 122 305 45
26 13 61 17

McCollum’s frequency of shots attempted after several dribbles has risen in the playoffs as the team relies on his shot creation. As the Nuggets blitz Lillard on the pick and roll, half the court opens for McCollum to cook his defender..

McCollum sustains efficient solo offense by finding shots in the zones he shoots best in. Of his 61 unassisted makes in the playoffs, most come in the paint and the remainder close to the key or above the break, the regions he effectively scored in during the regular season.

CJ McCollum’s unassisted makes in the playoffs overlaid with his regular season shooting zones.

Off the ball, McCollum rarely loiters in the corner despite his floor-spacing abilities; that’s Al-Farouq Aminu’s (and to a lesser extent, Moe Harkless’) job. The Nuggets allow, and even encourage, the two forwards to fire away from deep as Paul Millsap collapses on almost every Lillard penetration. Stationing McCollum in the corner and Aminu above the break would vacate the lane for Lillard to speed by Jokic on pick and rolls and get easier looks in the paint, but it doesn’t play to McCollum’s strengths.

In the 2018-2019 regular season, McCollum’s most frequent and successful shot locations came primarily on the right side of the floor and above the break. He thrived along the perimeter and in the midrange but didn’t finish at the hoop as effectively as other penetrating guards do. Shifting him to loitering in the corner decreases his dribbling opportunities, thereby devaluing his most unique skills: cleverness with the ball and shot creation.

The Blazers rank fourth in the playoffs in points per game and three-point percentage, sixth for field goal percentage. Their offense doesn’t need an overhaul. However, Lillard is no longer hitting shots at an astonishing rate as Denver picks him up the moment he crosses half court, a side effect of his 37-foot series winner.

Lillard was the No. 1 option and McCollum the No. 2 in the first round. Lillard is 1a and McCollum 1b in the semis. The Nuggets have thrown every defender at CJ; nobody can stay in front of him. McCollum’s getting to his best spots on the floor without the help of his teammates, kickstarting an offense that needs options besides Dame.