Damian Lillard is a superstar, and in Game 7, the Denver Nuggets defended him accordingly. They did not give the same respect to CJ McCollum, and it cost them. McCollum went for 37 points on Sunday, and the Portland Trail Blazers are now headed to the Western Conference finals after .
Portland will face the Golden State Warriors.
Game 1 is set for Tuesday in Oakland.
Many people will quickly dismiss Portland’s chances of beating, or even threatening the Warriors, but there are three reasons why that’s a foolish assumption. One, the Warriors could be without Kevin Durant until perhaps as late as Game 5 of this series. Two, Lillard is a star. And three, so is McCollum. I say that again because it bears repeating. McCollum is not a sidekick or a wingman. McCollum is a star, an utterly indefensible one-on-one force that can, and is absolutely willing to, shoulder the burden of putting a team on his back and carrying them through the biggest moments of the biggest games.
He’s done it all postseason.
He did it again in Game 7.
While Lillard was tied up getting the Steph Curry treatment, two defenders chasing and trapping him out to 35 feet while holding him without a field goal until the six-minute mark of the second quarter, it was McCollum taking advantage of a bit more lenient defensive attention to score bucket after bucket, every one of which felt utterly necessary to even keep the Blazers alive as Denver, which grew its first-half lead as high as 17, was on the verge of running away.
This isn’t to suggest McCollum was getting tracked hard defensively. He was. Guys get up in him, as they should. Everyone knows he’s one of the best one-on-one scorers in the league. But that’s the thing: He often gets to play one on one. That’s an advantage afforded by playing alongside Lillard. It’s the same reason Kevin Durant sees far more single coverage than a player of his caliber should ever receive, because Steph Curry gets doubled and trapped so often.
Look here as McCollum gets all the way to the rim:
Notice, first, how Gary Harris stays under the screen, and McCollum is afforded all the time he wants to have Enes Kanter re-set his screen without a second defender coming. Lillard doesn’t get that luxury. Second, look how far back Nikola Jokic is as the second defender. He’s dropped all the way into the lane rather than being up crowding McCollum off the screen, and now when McCollum turns the corner he now has a clear runway to get downhill with a full head of steam. He’s going to get that bucket every time.
You can’t really fault the Nuggets for this kind of coverage on McCollum. You have to focus on Lillard, and it’s tough to give that kind of attention, that far from the hoop, to two players. That’s what makes the Blazers dangerous. They have two stars, who are both in the most elite category of individual scorers.
“Everyone can see the one-on-one skills,” Pelicans assistant coach Darren Erman recently told CBS Sports. “He’s [McCollum] such a creative shot maker, the in-and-out handles, he can turn any defender. But you know something else he’s really good at that allows him to get his shot off so easily? He keeps guys on his hip as effectively as anyone. It’s hard to square him up as a defender. He’s really good at using his body to keep defenders where he wants them and then get to his spots, and then the skills take over from there. He’s one of the better players in the league at that, in my opinion. I even told [Blazers GM] Neil Olshey that one of the first times I saw him play. He uses his body so well in tight quarters. That’s not something people talk about enough with him.”
What’s crazy is McCollum has never been an All-Star. That’s how ridiculously talented the West is, which is why he and Lillard have never gotten the credit they’ve deserved as a duo. Everyone loves to talk about how they were swept by New Orleans last year and how they’ve never made it to the conference finals, but listen, when you’re in this era of the Western Conference, and you’re a top-five seed six of the last seven years, and a top-three seed the last two years, you are doing work. Finally, McCollum and Lillard are going to be talked about as something more than an exciting backcourt that probably can’t ultimately win anything meaningful together.
They’re in the Western Conference finals.
Without Jusuf Nurkic.
The second Nurkic went down, everyone wrote the Blazers off. Well, almost everyone. Yours trulyto make it exactly where they’ve made it, but I digress. The first reason people thought the Blazers were done is they failed to assign proper weight to the greatness of Lillard. Beyond that, NOBODY saw McCollum as anything more than a solid wingman. These playoffs, and certainly this Game 7 performance, has put that to bed.
Not only did McCollum score the 37 points on Sunday, he did it on 17-of-29 shooting. He also made one of the plays of the game with this chase-down block with the Blazers clinging to a four-point lead with less than five minutes to play:
At this time of year, you really find out who the fighters are. Who’s going to compete and get back into the picture to make a play like that. Because let’s be honest: There are some players out there with much bigger names, who are seen as much better players, who have not shown up for their teams in the biggest moments in these playoffs.
As usual, McCollum spent the bulk of a do-or-die game casually dropping in some of the toughest shots imaginable. Floaters. Fade-aways. Runners. Contested pull-ups. And when it was all on the line, Blazers up one and in need of a bucket to seal the game, it wasn’t Lillard they cleared the floor out for and went to. It was McCollum.
There is so much credit to go around for that shot. Lillard for having the superstar humility to happily step aside when his co-star has it going. Terry Stotts to take the ball out of his best player’s hands in the biggest moment. But mostly, that is just McCollum stepping up, on the road, with no room for error and barely enough room to get his shot off, and just flat-out sticking it. McCollum has been so good throughout the playoffs. Frankly, he’s been so good for years. Sunday was just the punctuation, even if this Blazers run isn’t finished.