By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
DENVER — C.J. McCollum doesn’t have a gesture for that time when he’s ready to take his game to the next level. That signature move has long been reserved for his partner in crime, Portland Trail Blazers All-NBA point guard Damian Lillard.
But after the show McCollum put on during what’s usually designated “Dame Time,” someone needs to come up with something.
McCollum brought the fire that fueled the Trail Blazers’ epic rally from a 17-point deficit to choke the life out of the Denver Nuggets 100-96 Sunday (Monday, PHL time) in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals at Pepsi Center.
McCollum made sure the Blazers punched their ticket to the Western Conference finals for the first time in 19 years, where they’ll battle the team Lillard grew up watching in Oakland during some of the Golden State Warriors’ leaner years. McCollum's nuclear 37-point effort also cemented he and Lillard’s status as one of the truly elite backcourts in basketball, one that can be counted on to shine as brightly in the postseason as it can in the regular season.
From his wicked and methodical destruction of the Nuggets’ attempts to take away his sweet spots to a critical chase-down block on the defensive end, McCollum was in assassin mode on a night when “Dame Time” never materialized.
Lillard struggled through a brutal 3-for-17 outing, unable to get on track the way he did when he scored 32 points in the Blazers’ Game 6 win in Portland Thursday (Friday, PHL time) that helped make Sunday (Monday, PHL time) possible.
He couldn’t muster the same effort he did in Game 5 of the first round, when his 37-footer that beat the buzzer sent the Oklahoma City Thunder into the offseason disappointed.
Then again, he didn’t have to with McCollum shredding the Nuggets at every turn.
That McCollum’s work — 17-for-29 from the floor, just 1-for-3 from deep, to go with nine rebounds and that block — was delivered in the way it was, on the stage it was, lends credibility to the theory that outside of Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Lillard and McCollum are the most dynamic set of guards in the league.
But that’s a conversation for another time, long after the raucous celebration the Blazers and their fans had in the corner of the arena behind their bench after McCollum’s pull-up jumper with 12.4 seconds provided the winning margin and two Evan Turner free throws with 8.0 seconds to play sealed the comeback win.
“I thought I was aggressive,” McCollum said. “Before the game, my brother texted me and told me not to settle. He told me to get to the midrange, get to the floater, get to the rim as much as possible, so I just tried to be as aggressive as possible … I wanted to empty the clip tonight. And I thought I did that.”
And then some.
“Obviously, we tried to give him the ball in plans and have his teammates in the right spots,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of what he dialed up for McCollum during his 22-point second half blitz. “But he wanted the ball and he has the ability to make things happen with it. We went to him down the stretch and he made some big plays.”
McCollum also managed the pressure of the game better than anyone else on the floor, on either team. The Nuggets clearly struggled with the magnitude of the moment. Jamal Murray endured a brutal shooting night (4-for-18) and showed his age (21). Nikola Jokic, a monster this entire series and really this entire postseason (the first of the All-Star big man’s career) ran out of gas late on a night when the triple-double threat scored 29 points and grabbed 12 rebounds but managed just two assists.
“For us, tonight is the end of the season, but I’m not going to allow this Game 7 loss to take away from the magical year,” said Nuggets coach Mike Malone, whose team could not cash in on the league’s best home record (34-7) during the regular season when they needed it most. “It doesn’t feel that way right now, but when I reflect and when our players reflect on what we were able to accomplish … hell of a year. I couldn’t ask for anything more of our guys.”
Neither could Stotts, who watched different players step up throughout the series.
As rewarding as it was to see his guys manage the pressure of Sunday’s (Monday, PHL time) game -- the same pressure that chewed up the young and higher-seeded Nuggets during their second-half meltdown -- the Blazers realize the challenge that awaits in the two-time defending champs.
The Warriors made some playoff magic of their own Friday night (Saturday, PHL time), eliminating the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of their conference semifinal without the services of two starters; both Kevin Durant (calf strain) and DeMarcus Cousins (quad) could make appearances but will start the conference finals unavailable for duty.
So any joy derived from finally getting back to this level since the late spring of the 1999-2000 season will be short-lived. The immediate future for the Blazers involves diving right back into the bunker for Game 1 against the Warriors on Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time) at Oracle Arena, where Lillard and McCollum can reacquaint themselves with their Splash Brothers rivals. Add to that the storyline of Blazers reserve guard Seth Curry and Steph becoming the first brothers in NBA history to compete against one another in a conference finals.
The proper perspective for what McCollum did Sunday (Monday, PHL time) won’t come for a while, years from now when these guys have moved on from their playing days.
Such is the fate of a performance that is as breathtaking in real time as it had to be for Blazers fans, and as riveting as it was for basketball fans engrossed in the first of the day’s two Game 7s. It’ll go down in history as one of the iconic moments for a franchise that has seen few of them in the nearly two decades that have passed since they last competed for a chance to play their way into the (Larry O’Brien) trophy realm.
“This is arguably the biggest win we’ve had in the franchise for a long time,” Stotts said when asked how he was managing his emotions as a loud celebration could be heard coming from the Blazers’ locker room. “To be a part of it, to do it the way we did, I’m thrilled. I’m really happy for our guys. As a coach, I think you experience the joy of the team, having different guys come in. Rodney [Hood] going down, Evan [Turner] coming in, I think he scored more points tonight than he scored in the whole series, probably … it’s such a group thing and as a coach, that’s what you appreciate the most.”
Getting to this point for the Blazers required trust in each other that has been built on a commitment that Lillard and McCollum have made to one another and in turn to their teammates, that is based on a bedrock understanding that they’d only get this far together.
Sure, the headlines are reserved for the stars. That’s the way it works in Portland and everywhere else. The highlight plays, McCollum’s block, won’t go away anytime soon. And with good reason.
“I just went and got it Bron (LeBron James) style,” the Ohio native said. “Shout out to my guy Bron from the 330 [area code]. It was a mini-version of Bron’s block on Iggy (Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala, during Game 7 of the Finals in 2016). I definitely didn’t get up as high but it was a cool play. Might get a picture of that one. Hang that joint up.”
But if said stars don’t set the culture, what good is it?
It should be noted that the Blazers dug in hardest after series hero and reserve forward Rodney Hood went down with a hyperextended left knee with 5:35 to play in the third quarter. The Blazers were down 60-55. Turner checked into the game for Hood, who did not return after starting the second half with fellow Game 6 hero and reserve Zach Collins.
The Blazers climbed all the way back to even and actually took a 71-70 lead into the fourth quarter, stunning both the Nuggets and their crowd, as they set the stage for fourth quarter heroics.
McCollum (eight points) and Lillard (six of his 13) made their presence felt. But it was Collins (five) and Turner (10, including a 6-for-7 effort from the free throw line) that proved just as critical.
“I just think we’re a pretty tough team,” Turner said. “We always stay together, we stay confident. We’ve always been a confident group. Everybody talks about the playoffs over the past two years and I think we’ve paid our dues to really get to this point, to battle through. We had adversity this whole year with [owner] Paul [Allen] going down [he passed away before the season], with [Starting center Jusuf] Nurkic going down and [video coordinator] Jon Yim being in a car accident [during the playoffs]. I think once again, pressure can bust pipes or make diamonds, so we never thought we were going to lose or anything like that.”
The resolve to fight back and win two straight games in this series shows not only the growth and development of this team that was swept out of the playoffs in each of its past two appearances, but it also makes public the ingredients that define the franchise, according to Lillard.
“I think it speaks to the character of our organization and what we’ve become,” Lillard said. “We had the roster turnover four years ago and everyone was quick to shoot us down and count us out. At that point we didn’t know for sure what direction we were going to go into, but we definitely leaned on the culture we wanted to create. We leaned on that — doing things the right way, working hard, being about each other and not being about one guy or two guys. I think we really built that up from the jump.”
And it shows now. The Blazers, the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase in each of the past two seasons but conveniently overlooked due to past playoff results, are indeed headed to the conference finals
“To have that,” Lillard said, “it takes everybody. Not just the players; you have to have the coaches, training staff, front office, security, everybody who is with us every day. The [public relations] staff, everybody we see every day. Everybody is invested in what we created. When we come out on top in a tough game like this, a tough series like this, you see it in everybody’s celebration.”
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