For nearly a full decade, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shared the backcourt for the Portland Trail Blazers, staking their claim as one of the NBA’s most potent 1-2 punches. Keeping both highlight-reel makers and opposing defenses awake and working late in the night, the duo injected a jolt of energy into the Portland fanbase, lacing up for over 500 games together from 2014 to 2022.
For the first time in 16 months, that pairing — this generation’s most impactful Blazers duo — will share the floor together once more in what promises to be an emotional outing.
Damian Lillard spoke about the Blazers trading CJ McCollum pic.twitter.com/KGgKUasAex— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) February 23, 2022
Circumstances are undoubtedly different since that culture-changing Feb. 6, 2022 deal that sent McCollum to the New Orleans Pelicans. For everything that’s changed, much has also remained the same: both players remain tasked with the expectation of leading the offensive charge for their respective franchises, each of which remaining heavily invested in this season’s Western Conference postseason race.
Across their eight-and-half year reign together, the two combined for 29,367 points — a lot of regular season and postseason buckets combined — along with three 50-win seasons, eight postseason appearances, once upon a time the NBA’s longest active streak, and an immeasurable amount of memories. In celebration for those, we look back at eight-and-a-half of their greatest moments in tandem.
1. The “Bombs Away” Game — Game 2, 2019 West First Round vs. OKC
Dynamic duos don’t survive nearly a full decade together without learning how to reach peak performance simultaneously. For Lillard and McCollum, that cohesion was at its most prolific in the spring of 2019.
The epitaph on this partnership’s life cycle had started in the lead-up to their First Round meeting against Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder. For reference: the Blazers had gone 1-12 in the 13 postseason games prior, leaving them short on confidence among the national media. 20 of ESPN’s analysts made picks for this series, 19 of them siding with Oklahoma City.
To two undersized mid-major guards who had made a career out of outpunching their weight, though, odds meant little. Enter Game Two.
Schooling the Thunder once in Game One was to get the monkey of their respective backs; to do it again would be sending a message. The Thunder opened up a double-digit lead midway through the second — and a 70.6 percent win probability at that — before the Blazers’ star duo did what expectations suggested they should:
This sequence by Damian Lillard is still iconic pic.twitter.com/yZfuiLLfWx— ESPN (@espn) April 17, 2020
The long-term highlight of that Game Two was the play above, with Lillard’s back-and-forth with Westbrook serving as an entertaining backdrop of this series. Though, it shouldn’t be forgotten what Lillard and his co-star did together in this one.
Igniting the rally, he and McCollum combined for 30 points in the second half on the way to a 114-94 win. Lillard finished with 29 points and six assists, McCollum with 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists. And of course, it’s well-known how this series ended.
2. “I Broke My Back, Spinal!” — Play-In Game, 2020 vs. MEM
When NBA players discuss some of the benefits to that of their sport, in comparison to say, the NFL — where games are often seven days apart — one of the positives they always bring up: after a bad performance, you normally don’t have to wait as long for a shot at redemption.
This was no longer the case in 2019-20, with the unorthodox, truncated “NBA Restart” leaving teams unable to play over a four-month span from mid-March to late-July. For the Blazers, then 29-37, injury-riddled and flawed, this meant that they had nearly a half-year to lick their wounds, reassess their situation, and most of all, figure out how they would stay within striking distance of the eighth-seeded Grizzlies for a shot at a Western Conference Play-In Game.
Lillard, ultimately named the Most Valuable Player of the NBA Restart in the Orlando bubble, wasn’t lacking in motivation. And, in one of the more high-consequence games in recent Blazers memory, his running mate CJ McCollum — all the while playing through a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture in his back — was just as scintillating as the two combined for 60 points.
Channeling his inner Mike Tyson, McCollum delivered one of his more entertaining moments, sharing a fun moment with Lillard and Lisa Salters.
What often goes forgotten in that game is that Portland, to borrow another boxing term, were very much so against the ropes, trailing 101-93 with nine minutes to play. In tandem, they tallied up 32 second half points, resuscitating the Blazers’ long time postseason streak in the process.
3. The Chris Haynes Interview on ESPN — March 2018
A key component that made the Lillard-McCollum pairing so alluring came in just how available they made themselves in off-court settings. McCollum evolved with the Pull-Up podcast and as a wine connoisseur, to name a few of his interests. Lillard helped bridge the gap between award-winning hip-hop artist and one of the faces of Adidas®. The two provided multiple avenues for which the fanbase could connect.
This stood in contrast to the previous regime of Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, with the latter being more reclusive, or that of say, Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen, given the “Jail Blazers” storyline and the subsequent temperature of the media.
Despite not elevating Portland to a championship, Dame and CJ provided the small-market Blazers relevance within the national media, highlighted by their hour-long, exclusive sit down with Yahoo Sports Senior NBA Insider (then of ESPN) in Chris Haynes.
For those who can remember at the time, it offered a look into sides of the Blazers duo that hadn’t been seen as often. Among some highlights:
- Lillard and McCollum’s relationship actually started because they both dealt with the same foot injury. Lillard could offer some advice on how to deal with it.
- Long before they teamed up in Portland, McCollum (Lehigh University) and Lillard (Weber State University) took turns leading the nation in scoring.
- McCollum checked Haynes for being among those who didn’t expect the pairing to work when they first started, highlighting some of the “chip on their shoulder” approaches that Portland fans have come to know all too well.
- Describing life as a score-first backcourt, and how to manage when one player is hot, how to take a step back, and how they stacked up amongst NBA history’s top backcourts.
The chemistry proved tangible. In subsequent press conferences, the two would even grow to develop similar mannerisms, complementing one another along the way. Thinking about some of the other elite duos of this time — think Harden-Westbrook, Embiid-Simmons, etc — it’s remarkable that there was never a story in which jealousy or insecurity came about. For better or worse, there haven’t been many duos quite like them.
4. A glimpse into the future — Game 4, 2015 West First Round vs. MEM
Not that any one knew it, or even wanted it at the time, but towards the end of the 2014-15 season, there were opportunities that showcased what a homegrown backcourt pairing of Lillard and McCollum could look like. Of those most high-profile, Game Four against the Grizzlies proved to be the most enticing.
By this point, the Blazers, once 30-8 and No. 1 in the Western Conference had become more of an unfortunate “What If” story. The championship window seemed shattered on the ruptured Achilles of Wesley Matthews, and within weeks, the talented two-guard—along with fellow starters Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez—would become a thing of the past. Fighting merely to avoid being swept at the Moda Center, the Blazers brought pride and energy, largely through their talented guard grouping.
McCollum put together the first of what would become a long list of elite performances in “win-or-go-home” games, many of those shots illustrated here:
I’ve got this odd suspicion that CJ McCollum is bounce back with one of his greater games tonight in Game 6. No real explanation why; w/ some players it just never feels smart counting them out.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) June 3, 2021
Take a look at his rèsumè in elimination matchups w/ the Blazers. Big-time stuff. pic.twitter.com/URZ0mDnBD0
Trailing by 10 with less than eight minutes to go, that Lillard-McCollum (and Aldridge) trio pieced together 25 points together to help avoid elimination. The days and weeks to come wouldn’t be as celebratory. Game Four remains a positive memory nonetheless.
5. The “Most Valuable” — McCollum leads the “MVP” chants for Lillard — Feb. 2, 2020
It’s difficult to argue that Damian Lillard isn’t, at the current moment, playing some of the best basketball of his career. Though, if there were a measuring stick, his eight-game stretch from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2020 might be it.
Over that span, Lillard averaged 45.1 points, 9.6 assists, and 5.5 rebounds on 53-53-88 splits (no, there are no typos there), with the sub-.500 Blazers needing every ounce of it to keep their fledgling postseason aspirations alive. Towards the climax of that stretch, Lillard, in the middle of the 51-point game against Utah (of course), stepped to the free throw line, awaiting the ball before a familiar chant — orchestrated by McCollum and Carmelo Anthony — broke out:
The entire arena gives Dame MVP chants after his 51-point game pic.twitter.com/kUZ4Fpv692— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 2, 2020
On the NBA 2K series, this would lead to a 10 percent increase in “teammate chemistry.” Sure, there were bigger on-court moments, but it proved full-circle for two teammates who always seemed to root on one another’s successes.
6. “Pick Your Poison” — The 2019 Western Conference Semifinals Duel vs. DEN
Because so many special moments followed each other, one after another in the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals, we’ll cheat. There’s:
(1) The “Rodney Hood Game,” the 4OT thriller in Game Three
(2) The win-or-go-home Game Six
(3) The “CJ McCollum Game,” the Game 7 comeback
Depending on your preferred story arc, it’s likely that everyone has a different favorite.
The “peak of the powers” game, simultaneously, would likely be Game Six, in which McCollum (30 points, six rebounds) and Lillard (32 points, five assists, six 3-pointers) matched both efficiency and a feel for the moment, the former of which they sometimes struggled with.
There’s no easy pick which game led to the fastest heartbeat; each was packed with pressure and high-stakes implications. On the box score, Game Three’s 140-137 win would likely suffice. In that game, Lillard played a 60-minute-and-one-second game, McCollum at 57:59 — prompting his “This is what I’m built for” quote — on the way to one of the greatest games in league history. There will be no Jamal Murray jokes today.
When one didn’t have it, the other did, as evidenced by each of them averaging 25+ over the seven-game series.
Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, & Rodney Hood combined for 87 PTS as the Blazers won at home last night to force a Game 7! ⌚️ pic.twitter.com/xg2mvYWjBX— NBA UK (@NBAUK) May 10, 2019
That spring of 2019 was something else, was it not?
7. “Stepping Up to the Champs” — Game 1, 2017 West First Round vs. GSW
Like most every other team in the NBA from 2014-15 to 2018-19, performances didn’t hold the same value unless you did it against the Golden State Warriors. Decade-long rulers of the Western Conference, the Warriors — and more specifically, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — became the litmus test the Lillard-McCollum pairing would be based judged against.
In a considerably superior environment with more talent, the Warriors often got the better end of the stick. That didn’t stop the Blazers’ duo from putting together signature moments in the process.
To count a few: there’s (1) Lillard’s “pissed off at the NBA,” 51-point performance against Golden State, fresh off of another All-Star snub, (2) the corner game-winner with three Warriors in his airspace in 2018-19, and even a cohesive 41-point second half takeover from Lillard and McCollum in a Feb. 14, 2018 win, providing some hope that, with both teams fully healthy, Portland could withstand the challenge.
From a group standpoint, the best of it came during Game One of the First Round of the 2017 Playoffs, in which Lillard and McCollum combined for 75 points, just shy of the record shared by Aldridge-Lillard and Drexler-Porter groupings.
The series itself wasn’t anything to speak of, but it served as one of the many times in which anything felt possible because both players were on at the same time.
8. “The Last Hurrah” — OT Duel vs. Harden’s Rockets — Dec. 26, 2020
As the prime of his career reaches its zenith, it’s likely that CJ McCollum will go down as one of league’s greatest players to never earn an NBA All-Star nomination. Among players to log at least 500 games, McCollum’s 19.4 points per game scoring average ranks No. 1 all-time for players never making an appearance in the star-studded exhibition game.
To open the 2020-21 campaign, the talented two-guard played as if that stat was on his psyche. Over the first 11 games, McCollum averaged 28.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game on 47-44-84 splits.
In the process, the Lillard-McCollum match had seldom looked better; they would become the first backcourt duo to each score 250+ points in their team’s first ten games:
The only others in league history to have done so at that time? Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant (2001-02), Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (‘17, ‘18, ‘19), and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (2020-21).
The peak of that stretch came in a 128-126 thriller over the Houston Rockets, in which McCollum poured in 44 points, eight assists and nine 3-pointers, and Lillard provided reinforcement with 32 points, five rebounds and nine assists, the last of which proved to be the most important.
To close with a fun fact: from 2015-16 to 2021-22, only eight players averaged 20+ every season; McCollum and Lillard were the only duo to have done so.
8.5: The Honorable Mentions
— The first-ever Playoffs series win vs. the Clippers in 2016.
— The Rachel Nichols interview ahead of the 2019 Playoffs
— Game One of the 2021 series against Denver, in which the two combined for 55.
— The historic, 68-point, 23-assist game the two had against Sacramento on Jan. 14, 2021.
— The fact that each guard played in 90+ percent of the games they shared together. From 2015-16 to 2020-21, Lillard was No. 5 in games played (436) and No. 1 in minutes played (15,750) with McCollum at No. 8 (428) and No. 7 in minutes played (15,030). Given McCollum’s comments about load management, and how the players were supposed to agree to which games they would sit, it’s clear that both fought to be on the floor as much as possible. And, as the old saying goes, the best ability is availability.
Be sure to share some of your favorite Lillard-McCollum memories below as well. With so many to choose from, it’s likely that many slipped through the cracks or have more significant backstories than others.