CJ McCollum Gave Portland Trail Blazers the Puncher's Chance They Needed

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 13, 2019

DENVER, CO - MAY 12:  CJ McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers exits the court after winning Game Seven of the Western Conference Semi-Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs against the Denver Nuggets on May 12, 2019 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
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In a number of Rocky Balboa's marquee matchups, he was not the heavy hitter. He won wars of attrition against Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago and Tommy Gunn. While his opponents threw haymakers, Rocky went to the body and slowly wore his competition down.

On Sunday, in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals, CJ McCollum was Rocky, delivering body blow after body blow for his Portland Trail Blazers, who eliminated the Denver Nuggets with a 100-96 victory on the road.

Portland took a beating early on Sunday, losing the first quarter 29-17. It slowly but surely wore the Nuggets down over the rest of the game, relying on McCollum and winning each of the last three frames.

Denver gassed itself taking haymakers from the three-point line. Not in the sense that the Nuggets took more than usual (their three-point attempt rate Sunday was lower than the one they posted in the regular season), but they just could not connect to save their season.

Nikola Jokic hit his first two. And that was it. Seventeen straight misses from there on out to finish 2-of-19.

McCollum, meanwhile, just stayed within reach with mid-ranger after mid-ranger. Or, body blow after body blow. By the end of the night, he was 16-of-26 from inside the arc. He only attempted three threes.

And with barely a minute to play, he landed the two shots that finally brought the Nuggets down. A 15-footer from the elbow with 1:25 left to make it 96-93, followed by another from about the same spot with 12.4 seconds left. The second one made it 98-95.


His monster performance, 37 points with a 60.3 effective field-goal percentage, highlights what might give Portland a puncher's chance against a looming behemoth, the Golden State Warriors.

Damian Lillard has rightfully led most Portland-centric stories this postseason. Lillard entered Game 7 averaging 29.8 points on 44.9 percent shooting from the field and 38.7 percent shooting from three. He scored 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting Sunday.

"It's a luxury to have two guys like that on a night where Dame struggled shooting the ball," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "CJ came up big. One of them is going to have something going. It's a luxury to have two guys who can score like that."

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That luxury is something that has often generated speculation. A common rumor-mill talking point over the years has been the lack of size in Portland's backcourt.

Can the Blazers win big with two undersized guards? Should they trade McCollum for a bigger three-and-D guy?

"CJ McCollum showed why they have one of the best backcourts in the NBA," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. "He put the team on his back."

With so much at stake—Portland hasn't advanced this far in the playoffs since 2000—McCollum may have put a lot of those narratives to rest for a while.

"When I see him in that type of zone, I'm not going to shy away from the game, but I'm not going to force anything," Lillard said. "The game opened up a lot because of what CJ was doing. Guys were getting offensive rebounds because they had to help on CJ."

DENVER, CO - MAY 12: CJ McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots the layup against the Denver Nuggets during Game Seven of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on May 12, 2019 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO
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The Blazers will need as much firepower as possible to keep pace with the Warriors, even if they are without the injured Kevin Durant for the start of the series.

Having two guards who can get you 30 on a given night is obviously helpful, but it'll likely take even more than that.

"Our bench is just so deep, man," Blazers center Enes Kanter said. "Everyone can bring something to the table."

Kanter logged 40 minutes, 13 boards and 12 points in the closeout game. Five of his rebounds were on the offensive end. And he'll be crucial against Golden State.

Often a finesse team, one of the Warriors' only weaknesses can be on the glass. Kanter is someone who can beat them up in there, much like he did against the Nuggets.

"I thought the game came down to 21 second-chance points," Malone said after Game 7. "And you leave 11 points at the foul line."

Giving up those points on offensive rebounds and going 28-of-39 from the line is another sign that this was one of those wars of attrition. Or, at the risk of mixing metaphors, a battle in the trenches.

Portland will need to bring that same level of physicality and endurance to the series against Golden State.

Make no mistake, the Blazers will be underdogs. Probably big ones. But there's a toughness to this team that has been fostered over the years.

"We definitely leaned on the culture we tried to create," Lillard said of the last four seasons following the loss of four starters in the summer of 2015. "Being about each other. Not being about one guy, two guys. Everybody's invested in what we've created."

That connectivity will be huge in the Western Conference Finals. But the Warriors will likely hit on a lot of the kind of big swings Denver missed on Sunday.

If the Blazers can stay within reach of the league's most powerful heavyweight, they'll show they have the kind of fighters who'll just keep moving forward.

Rocky shocked the world a time or two (or six). Perhaps Portland can, too.


*Stats, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.