PORTLAND, Ore. – The Trail Blazers, with some modern-day inspiration from their four-time All-Star, bounced back from a lopsided loss to force a Game 7 with a 119-108 win over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.
After a rout in Denver in Game 5 of the West semifinals gave the Nuggets a 3-2 series lead, the Trail Blazers were feeling a mix of emotions, but the team would soon be on the same positive wavelength.
With Rip City on the brink of elimination and feelings of anger and frustration permeating, a timely message was delivered.
Upon landing in the Pacific Northwest in the early afternoon Wednesday, approximately 12 hours after suffering the eighth-largest postseason loss in the nearly 50-year history of the franchise, the players’ cellphones began buzzing simultaneously.
It was a mass text chain initiated by Damian Lillard. At the heart of his message, multiple players told Yahoo Sports: No matter how substantial the defeat, it’s a lone defeat and they still had the opportunity to keep their season alive.
“Dame basically said our season isn’t going to end like this,” CJ McCollum told Yahoo Sports. “He said we’ve come too far to go out like this. So, we did what we had to do.”
The often-reserved Al-Farouq Aminu quickly chimed in on the text chain, also expressing he wasn’t ready for his season to end.
And just like that, a forum commenced of players texting words of reassurance, unity and hope for Game 6.
“I just wanted to remind my guys that it wasn’t over,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “It didn’t matter if we lost by 20 or 30 or 50. We lost, and it only counts as one. We needed to get Game 6, and I wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page with the text.”
McCollum shared what he sent in the group text.
“I just said if we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll force a Game 7,” McCollum told Yahoo Sports. “Simple as that. And now we’re going to Game 7.”
Lillard led the way, finishing with a game-high 32 points and draining six triples. McCollum added 30 points and six boards. Rodney Hood and Zach Collins were spark plugs off the bench, recording 25 points and 14 points respectively. Portland also shot 46.1 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from 3-point range, hitting 15-of-33.
“We’ve got to play better defense,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “To me, it’s pretty black and white.”
Nikola Jokic had 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, and Jamal Murray contributed 24 points.
The Blazers displayed some toughness, which was one of the focal points of the team’s group text.
Late in the third quarter, Trail Blazers guard Seth Curry and Nuggets swingman Will Barton engaged in a little shoving match. Collins fell backward to the ground and landed near Barton’s legs. In trying to dislodge a standing Barton from Collins, Curry shoved Barton and tried to help his teammate up.
But before Curry could get ahold of Collins’ hand, Barton returned the shove and the two went face-to-face, with Barton eventually putting a finger near Curry’s eye to escalate matters.
While McCollum and an official held Curry back, Barton walked to the guard and said, “What? I’m right here. Do something,” sources told Yahoo Sports.
“When people got between us, he put his finger in my eye. I can’t be allowing people to put fingers in my eye,” Curry said. “That was real sassy. Some real sassy dudes over there. Some frontrunners. We can’t allow that. We need some toughness out there, and after we got down, we needed to play with an edge. It was good to see us get that win.”
Barton was irate when he heard Curry’s remarks, sources told Yahoo Sports. He was convinced Curry was trying to play a tough-guy role he was not capable of or qualified to pull off.
“I liked the way we came out,” Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “We kind of got behind the 8-ball a little bit early in the first quarter. We fouled a little bit too much, but I think not so much how we came out, but how we responded to being down 10 in the first quarter. We didn’t have a lot of momentum, but the way we came back in the first half was important and then the way we sustained it. Going into Game 7, it should be fun.”
Portland responded to Lillard’s call to action.
It was a more confident, composed and motivated group that took the court on Thursday. That same level of focus will be needed Sunday if the Trail Blazers want to win on the road and advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2000.
It will be the first Game 7 of Lillard’s career, but the three-time All-NBA point guard isn’t fazed by the challenge.
“We were facing elimination tonight,” Lillard said. “So the only thing that’s going to change [in Game 7] is it’s going to be on the road.”
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