CJ McCollum Erupts as Blazers Beat Nuggets in Game 7; Will Play Warriors in WCF

Rob Goldberg@TheRobGoldbergFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2019

DENVER, CO - MAY 12:  CJ McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers goes to the basket against the Denver Nuggets during Game Seven of the Western Conference Semi-Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs 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)
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers are headed to the Western Conference Finals after a Game 7 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

CJ McCollum was the star with 37 points in the 100-96 road win Sunday at Pepsi Center. His clutch shot in the final minute helped seal the win for Portland:

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Damian Lillard struggled with his shot but still finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists to help the Trail Blazers reach the third round of the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2000.

Denver appeared to be in control with as much as a 17-point lead in the first half, but Portland stormed back in the third and eventually secured the hard-fought victory.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets' impressive season comes to an end despite 29 points from Nikola Jokic and 17 from Jamal Murray.

        

Blazers Need a Consistent Third Option to Get Past Dubs

This has been a dream season for the Trail Blazers with the postseason going extremely well after a couple of disappointing early exits. Unfortunately, the upcoming series can be a difficult one if things don't go perfectly.

CJ McCollum was the clear star of Game 7, finishing with 37 on 17-of-29 shooting while looking unstoppable at times attacking the basket:

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He was the biggest reason the team was even competitive in the first half:

The guard turned it on even more in the second half with 22 of his total points after halftime, even adding a huge defensive play in the fourth quarter:

After several big games during this series, he showed that he probably deserves more than to be in the shadow of "Dame Time."

On a night where Damian Lillard couldn't get anything going while finishing 3-of-17 from the court, McCollum was exactly what Portland needed.

Of course, we know Lillard can carry the team as well when he is on, scoring at least 28 points in eight of 12 games this postseason. This included his 50-point effort in the clinching win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Lillard and McCollum combine to make one of the top backcourts in the NBA, and a big game from either one is enough to beat most teams in the league.

Unfortunately, it's not enough to beat the Warriors.

Golden State has an offense that just doesn't quit, leading the NBA in offensive efficiency this year, per Basketball Reference. Even if Kevin Durant is less than 100 percent, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have shown that they can still light up the scoreboard and make the team near impossible to defend.

If the Trail Blazers want to keep up, they will need both guards to play well and at least one other player to emerge as a go-to option.

Rodney Hood looked like that player at times this series, but he left Sunday's game with a hyperextended knee and only had six points in 20 minutes before the injury. While the wing was outstanding in Game 6, he was also nearly absent in the team's losses.

The same could be said about Enes Kanter, who was a key part of the Game 7 win with 12 points and 13 rebounds. The problem is he had gone three straight games without hitting double figures before this one.

Evan Turner also played well Sunday with 14 points and seven boards, which was once again a change from the rest of the series:

It's clear the Blazers have talent, but whether it's one of these players or Seth Curry or someone else, they won't be able to win another series without one of the players providing legitimate production every single night.

       

The Nuggets Are Here to Stay

Even without advancing to the conference finals, the Nuggets showed that their record during the season was not a fluke.

The team showcased throughout the playoffs and even in the Game 7 loss exactly what made Denver so dangerous all year long. It also showed why the team should remain a threat going into next year.

Although Jokic has had better all-around games, he looked good offensively Sunday when he called his own number:

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He only had two assists, but he realized the importance of this game and finished 11-of-26 from the field to get 29 points.

In addition to the All-Star center, one of the major strengths of the team is the backcourt depth with several different players capable of stepping up on a given night.

Jamal Murray had been a key part of the series, entering the day averaging 24.7 points per game, but struggled mightily in Game 7 by going 4-of-18 from the field. However, he still was there when needed with six points in the last 3:09 of the game.

Gary Harris was also there to pick up the slack with 15 and several impressive plays on the court:

Will Barton, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley also showed they can be dangerous on a given night.

Of course, the biggest factor going forward could be the defense.

Last year, Denver missed the playoffs with a defense that ranked 25th in the league in efficiency, per Basketball Reference. The group improved to 10th this year, and the difference was clear in the standings.

Players like Torrey Craig and Paul Millsap can defend all over the floor while the entire team does a great job of working together to force difficult shots. This was seen in Game 7, as the Blazers were held to 4-of-26 shooting from three-point range.

Just about every key player returns next season and should only get better with more experience and chemistry together on the floor.

There could also be a bonus if last year's lottery pick, Michael Porter Jr., provides anything after missing all of 2018-19.

While free agency could significantly change the landscape going into next season, the Nuggets should be a top contender for a title in 2020.

        

What's Next?

Portland will now take on the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who could be without the injured Kevin Durant for part or all of the series. While the squad will be the underdog in the conference finals, the recent success should provide plenty of hope for an upset in the upcoming series.

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