By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
PORTLAND -- From a season that seemed like it would never end this time last year to one that he refuses to let end now, Rodney Hood is living his best basketball life these days.
Yes, he played in The 2018 Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were on the wrong side of a sweep of the Golden State Warriors.
But Hood was in a “dark place” then, a good player but a bad fit on an already established, LeBron James-led team. He was unsure of himself and his role on that team and uncertain of his future and where it might lead.
He’s free from that now, playing a vital reserve role for the Portland Trail Blazers while doing whatever he can to help push his team to the conference finals. In doing so, he has the added motivation of proving his previous struggles are a thing of the past.
Hood was at his best Thursday night (Friday, PHL time) at Moda Center, coming through with a monster game in a 119-108 Game 6 win against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semfinals that staved off elimination.
His 25 points helped fuel the Blazers on a night when both Damian Lillard (32 points) and C.J. McCollum (30) were rolling as well, making certain that this redemptive Blazers’ season extends to Sunday’s (Monday, PHL time) Game 7 at Pepsi Center.
“This series I got a matchup I like,” Hood said. “I’m really aggressive, trying to take some pressure off of Dame and C.J. We’ve got one more game to get to get to the Western Conference finals, so we’ve got to keep exploiting different things.”
It was Hood, who averaged 3.2 points per game in Blazers’ first round series against Oklahoma City, who Lillard called the “most consistent” player in this series. Nuggets coach Mike Malone called him the Blazers’ “MVP” Thursday night and acknowledged that the production and energy provided by Hood (and Blazers reserve big man Zach Collins) were the difference in Game 6.
“As well as Damian Lillard played, you can’t speak enough about Rodney Hood,” Malone said. “Not just the impact Rodney had tonight, but the impact he’s had the whole series. So talk about a young man stepping up and taking advantage of a situation in an elimination game. It was a great performance by Rodney Hood. We have to be much better guarding him.”
That’s much more attention than was paid to Hood by the Thunder and earlier this season when the Blazers acquired him in a February trade for Nik Stauskas, Wade Baldwin and second-round picks in 2021 and 2023.
“Well, I can’t speak to before he got to Portland but in this series, I think he’s bounced back from the Oklahoma City series,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I think he’s had some favorable matchups and we’ve been able to take advantage of it. He’s shooting with confidence and that just kind of snowballs. I think when you see the ball going in, especially with a scorer like Rodney, it just kind of snowballs a little bit.”
Whatever was ailing him before and whatever matchups didn’t favor him in the first round … that has all changed for Hood now.
Not only did he exploit mismatches in Game 6, he showed the aggressiveness that marked his 2017-18 season with the Utah Jazz (when he averaged 16.8 ppg) as things have come to life for Hood at the perfect time.
Hood shot 8-for-12 (and 3-for-4 on three-pointers) with four rebounds and zero turnovers in 32 minutes. For the series, he’s at 16.2 ppg on 60.4 percent shooting and 57.9 percent on three-pointers.
“We need to watch the game film and see what aspects of the game he hurt us,” said Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. “He shot 8-for-12, so that’s a really high percentage. Maybe we just need to be aggressive on him and don’t let him pick us apart. He had a lot of wide open shots.”
The Blazers’ bench outscored their Nuggets counterparts 42-13, with Hood, Collins (14 points and five blocks in a season-high 29 minutes) and Seth Curry (three points) providing all the production.
“They were great,” McCollum said. “They’ve been killing the whole series. Rodney’s been exceptional in the midrange, dominating the block and hitting three's. Zach has impeccable timing, he’s going to lead the NBA in blocks in the future, for sure. He’s fearless, can knock down threes can finish at the basket … he’s giving us a different dynamic.”
Hood was the third scorer that Lillard and McCollum so desperately needed to keep the Denver defense honest and make sure the Blazers had a chance to make that their return trip to the Mile High City for Sunday’s (Monday, PHL time) Game 7 showdown.
“We know teams are going to try and come and take us out,” Lillard said. “It’s not as much pressure to score the ball, it’s not as much pressure to make something happen because you’ve got another guy out there with 25 points He’s probably been our most consistent player, game over game, over the course of this series. I feel like all six games, he’s had a good game, so we’re going to need him to continue that in Game 7.”
Hood wanted just a few more minutes to soak up the Game 6 atmosphere before moving on to what looms in Game 7.
He left the floor Thursday night (Friday, PHL time) to the thunderous chanting of his name from the crowd. It was a far cry from the way he exited Oracle Arena in The 2018 Finals, walking up the emptying stands with his family and out of the public entrance to the building.
The disappointment from his time with the Cavaliers seems like a distant memory now, a lifetime ago for a player ready to chase another shot at the conference finals -- this time in a space that works for him.
“It’s just been great,” Hood said of the relocation here from Cleveland and the fit with the Blazers. “Sometimes when you make changes, it’s for the better, you’re around a great group of guys who kind of have a personality like me, just want to win, good people. The community is great out here, so it just adds to it.
“I give a lot of credit to coach Stotts and his coaching staff for bringing me in, and to a team that was already third or fourth in the West, and enabling me to be a big part of what we’re doing here. It’s for reasons like this, being able to advance as much as we can, so I’m happy coming through for them. And they’ve been great for me.”
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