DENVER —The Denver Nuggets opened a 39-22 lead over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 on Sunday. Nikola Jokic was hot. Damian Lillard was cold.
A date with the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals seemed inevitable.
But CJ McCollum had other ideas. The Blazers’ second option was often their only option as he rallied Portland from an early 17-point deficit to lead the Blazers into the Western Conference finals with a 100-96 victory.
As Lillard missed bucket after bucket, McCollum slid into the alpha role to pace Portland with 37 points and nine rebounds against a Nuggets defense that was helpless to stop him at the rim.
McCollum clutch throughout
As it was throughout the second half, it was McCollum’s game in crunch time as he held on to the ball in the final moments to sink a pull-up jumper to give Portland a 98-95 lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.
After fouls and free throws on both ends, the game was over and Portland was headed to the Western Conference finals.
McCollum did his damage without depending on the long ball. He regularly attacked the basket, exploiting a soft spot in Denver’s interior defense for layups and floaters while hitting 17-of-29 shots from the field. Only one of those buckets was from beyond the 3-point line on three attempts.
While he torched the Nuggets with the ball in his hands, his biggest play may have been on defense with a late transition block of Denver guard Jamal Murray.
CJ’s big block
As the Nuggets looked to seize momentum in the latter half of the fourth quarter, Murray found himself on a one-man break with a chance to cut Portland’s lead to two.
Jokic had just blocked a driving layup by Lillard and secured the rebound under the rim. He found a streaking Murray at half-court via one of his trademark outlet passes in what had the makings of a play that would blow the roof off the Pepsi Center and give a deflated Denver team an energy resurgence in the final minutes of the game.
But Seth Curry impeded Murray’s path to the basket, and McCollum chased Murray down from behind for a rally-halting block. A beaming McCollum likened the play to LeBron James’ famous chase-down block of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
“He put it right there for me,” McCollum said of Murray. “I went and got it, ’Bron style. Shout out to my guy, ’Bron. It was a mini version of ’Bron’s block on Iggy some years ago. It was a cool play and something that we’ll remember for forever.”
Lillard struggles, defers
Lillard, Portland’s best player and first-round hero with his series-clinching 3-pointer to vanquish the Oklahoma City Thunder, was reduced to a role player as he hit just 3-of-17 shots from the field. He missed his first six shots and didn’t score until hitting a midrange jump shot with 6:10 remaining in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, McCollum was heating up en route to a 15-point first half. When the third quarter rolled around, Lillard was in full deference mode to McCollum, who scored 14 points in the stanza as Lillard went scoreless on three shots.
Lillard found other ways to contribute, tallying 13 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, while recognizing it was his backcourt mate’s time to shine in the pressure cooker of a road Game 7.
“I just tried to focus on making the right plays,” Lillard said. “CJ had it going. When I see him in that type of zone, I’m not going to shy away from the game, I’m still gonna be involved in the game. But I’m not gonna force anything.”
Splash Brothers up next
McCollum’s performance will help set the tone for the marquee matchup of the Western Conference finals against the league’s best backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
When Kevin Durant got injured in Game 5 of Golden State’s series against the Houston Rockets, the Splash Brothers reasserted themselves, taking over the rest of the series in a throwback to their dominant selves before Kevin Durant arrived to become Golden State’s featured player.
With Durant’s status for the series up in the air, the focus in Golden State will remain on the backcourt. Curry and Thompson will face worthy adversaries as Lillard and McCollum have a chance to prove themselves against the gold standard of NBA guard play.
McCollum doesn’t get nearly the attention that Lillard does, but his massive Game 7 performance on Sunday demonstrated what he’s capable of when he’s on.
Whether he can maintain that level and if Lillard can get back on track will determine if the Western Conference finals will be competitive or a runaway for the two-time defending champs.
Portland won’t have much time to celebrate Sunday’s victory, with Game 1 against Golden State on Tuesday.
But they have Sunday’s postgame and ensuing plane flight to bask in the glow of victory, a reward they’ll rightfully relish.
Road teams aren’t supposed to win Game 7’s in the NBA. Entering Sunday, the home team had won 105 of 133 Game 7s (79 percent) played.
Road teams definitely aren’t supposed to rally from a 17-point deficit in Game 7. But Portland proved the more resilient team against a young Nuggets core without any significant playoff experience prior to this season outside of Paul Millsap.
The Blazers didn’t allow the slow start to defeat them in a moment that could have easily overwhelmed a lesser-poised team.
“There wasn’t going to be any quit,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said about calling a timeout when the Nuggets took their 17-point lead. “I don’t think they ever stopped believing. I didn’t really have to say much.”
Devastating loss for Nuggets
As the Blazers look forward to the franchise’s first conference finals trip since 2000, the Nuggets are left to ponder a sudden, crushing end to a breakout season.
Sunday’s was a collapse that can act as a launching point for future playoff runs if the Nuggets don’t allow it to demoralize them. Most teams that reach the NBA pinnacle experience significant playoff pain before arriving there.
This certainly qualifies as playoff pain.
Jokic was understandably upset after the Nuggets let go of their grasp on the series on their home court.
“They look at me as a leader,” Jokic said of his teammates. “They look at me as their best player. And yeah, I missed that one free throw at the end. I missed a free thrown in the Portland game that led to four overtimes, and I feel responsible just because I missed a lot of shots. I was supposed to make some of those.”
Another Game 7 breakdown
Jokic was not the reason Denver lost. He was his typical outstanding self through most of the game, tallying 29 points, 13 rebounds and two assists.
But like the rest of his teammates, he couldn’t find the bottom of the net late in the game. Jokic hit 3-of-10 shots in a fourth quarter the Nuggets shot 29.2 percent as a team.
It was reminiscent of Denver’s Game 7 against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. The Nuggets opened up a 47-34 halftime lead in that game, only to allow the Spurs to rally in the fourth quarter when Denver went cold from the field.
Except Denver hung to win that one. This time, there was too much to overcome. Jokic hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the first quarter as the Nuggets built their big early lead. Those would be the only 3-pointers on the day for Denver, which finished 2-of-19 from behind the arc and shot 37.1 percent from the field for the game.
Breakout guard Jamal Murray had perhaps his worst game of the playoffs. He shot 4-of-18 from the field en route to 17 points, missing all four of his 3-point attempts.
Denver was ahead of schedule
It’s a bruising performance that will linger into the offseason and a lost opportunity for the Nuggets to prove themselves on the grand stage in the next round of the playoffs.
But perspective should eventually provide solace for the young Nuggets, who arrived at the No. 2 seed and on the verge of the conference finals ahead of schedule.
Meanwhile, Portland survives, giving Lillard and McCollum the opportunity they’ve looked to seize since becoming the focus of Portland’s plans when LaMarcus Aldridge left the team in 2015.
Curry and Thompson are waiting. It won’t be easy.
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