DENVER — After demolishing the Denver Nuggets with a dazzling and delicious performance that will go down in Portland Trail Blazers lore, CJ McCollum climbed the steps of the Pepsi Center in Section 129 in search of a hug.
Sitting in a seat on the aisle about 15 rows up was Kathy Andrews, McCollum’s mother, and as her son sauntered up the steps, a tailored green suit draped around his shoulders, he couldn’t help but flash a victorious grin. Andrews pointed her cell phone at McCollum as he ascended, no doubt snatching video of the moment, and as he reached her she rose to share a Mother’s Day embrace the two will never forget.
“He said he was going to do a good job for me,” Andrews said. “I told him that all I wanted for Mother’s Day was a win. He was like, ‘I told you so!”
Fueled by the most impressive and important performance of McCollum’s career, a little redemption from Evan Turner and a whole lot of guts, the Blazers defeated the Nuggets 100-96 Sunday afternoon in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. It clinched a 4-3 series victory for the Blazers, who were playing just the fourth Game 7 in franchise history, and delivered a date with the vaunted Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.
It’s the seventh time in franchise history — and first since 2000 — the Blazers will play in the conference finals.
“We don’t stop, we don’t quit,” Moe Harkless said. “When we came in at halftime, there was nobody in this locker room that thought we were going to lose the game. We showed it on the floor, we’ve showed that all season, all playoffs. We’ve been in situations where we had to really, really fight to come out on top. We’re at our best when our backs are against the wall. And I think we showed that again.”
Indeed. Much like this improbable playoff run, the Blazers had to overcome a mound of adversity to keep their championship dreams alive.
They scored just 17 points in the first quarter. They trailed by 17 points in the second quarter. They shot just 15 percent from three-point range. Damian Lillard had one of the coldest playoff outings of his career, Rodney Hood suffered a scary left knee injury and Zach Collins encountered foul trouble.
But as if guided by fate — or the spirt of owner Paul Allen, some of them say — the resilient Blazers responded as they have all season when tragedy or challenge or injury strikes.
There was Lillard fighting through a forgettable 3-for-17 shooting night to nail two clutch crunch-time three-pointers. There was Enes Kanter outlasting a Ramadan fast and sore left shoulder to record 12 points and 13 rebounds. There was Meyers Leonard battling Nikola Jokic on defense, Harkless applying intense ball-pressure on Jamal Murry and Collins playing through that foul trouble to produce an important seven points, five rebounds and four blocks.
But, more than anything, there was a been-there, done-that effort from Turner. And there was a masterful performance from McCollum.
And now a season that has suddenly evolved from fun to special will continue, with a date against the big, bad Warriors and a shot at history.
“I just think we’re a pretty tough team,” Turner said. “We always stay together, we stay confident — we’ve always been a confident group. Everybody talks about the playoffs over the last two years and I think we paid our dues to get to this point, to be able to battle through. We’ve had adversity this whole year, with Paul going down, with (Jusuf Nurkic) going down and with Jon Yim getting in a car accident. Pressure can bust pipes or make diamonds. We never thought we were about to lose.”
For McCollum, Sunday started with a text message.
Shortly before the game, he peered at his phone and noticed an alert from his brother, Errick, who, in-between his own professional basketball games in Russia, was reaching out to offer a sage piece of advice:
“Don’t settle,” he texted.
Get to the midrange. Unleash the floater. Drive to the basket. Be aggressive.
And, from beginning to end, that’s just what McCollum did. When his teammates were laboring through an ice-cold start — the Blazers made just 7 of 25 first-quarter shots — McCollum coolly made 4 of 6 and scored eight points to keep them afloat. When they were fighting tooth and nail to come back from a 17-point hole in the second quarter, he made 3 of 6 shots and scored seven points. Then he took over.
McCollum sliced and diced his way around the Nuggets defense in jaw-dropping fashion, swishing step-back jumpers, completing crafty floaters, polishing off pretty drives to the hoop, nailing dagger after dagger after dagger.
“He was a monster,” Harkless said of McCollum. “He was incredible. He carried us most of the game. He’s a killer and he did that tonight.”
And two kill-shots will be remembered most.
With 4:44 left and the Blazers clinging to a four-point lead, Jokic blocked Lillard’s driving layup, corralled the rebound and heaved the ball ahead to Murray at halfcourt. The Nuggets’ dynamic point guard broke free and sprinted toward an empty basket, with nothing but a highlight-reel, momentum-stealing dunk ahead. But Seth Curry caught up near the logo and ran stride for stride with Murray to the basket, staling him just enough. By the time Murray approached the hoop, he had to settle for a left-handed layup and at the last second — out of nowhere — McCollum rose and swatted away the attempt, switching momentum in the blink of an eye.
It was perhaps the most memorable and extraordinary chase-down block in franchise history.
“I think it was a turnover that led to a runout,” McCollum said. “They passed it ahead. Seth did a great job of cutting off his man, making him have to go over his head and he put it right there for me. I just went and got it — Bron style. Shoutout to my guy, Bron.”
Bron, of course, is LeBron James. And McCollum was comparing his moment to that of James’ famous chase-down block on Andre Igoudala in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
“It was a mini version of Bron,” McCollum said. “I definitely didn’t get up as high. But it was a cool play. It’s something that I will remember all my life. I might need a picture of that one.”
He might want to save a frame for his biggest shot of the game, too. After rallying from that 17-point deficit to take a fourth-quarter lead, the Blazers were fighting off a hard charge from the Nuggets. And when Murray swished a tough jumper over Harkless with 29.7 seconds left, Denver was within 96-95. An exhilarating series that featured everything from quadruple overtime to triple-doubles to mini-melees would fittingly go down to the wire.
During a timeout, McCollum told Terry Stotts that he wanted the ball and the Blazers’ coach obliged, calling four flat and putting the ball — and the game — in McCollum’s hands.
He dribbled patiently on the perimeter, allowing a little time to tick off the clock, and with about 18 seconds left he went to work. McCollum sized up Torrey Craig outside the three-point line, rocked side-to-side and then darted toward the hoop, stopping on a dime near the free throw line. McCollum gave Craig a little MJ-esque shove, stepped back, and swished a no-doubt-about-it, 16-foot jumper.
It gave the Blazers a 98-95 lead and proved to be the difference.
McCollum’s final line: 37 points, nine rebounds, 17 of 29 shooting and one big ol’ I-told-you-so.
Few Blazers have excelled through as many detractors as the scrawny kid from Ohio who could only muster a mid-major college scholarship. He was too small to play shooting guard, too defensively challenged to succeed alongside Lillard, too streaky to flourish in the playoffs. Most pundits and many fans had long ago decided McCollum needed to be traded for the Blazers to become a serious threat in the Western Conference. But there he was Sunday — after averaging 26.4 points and shooting 45 percent from the field in the series — silencing them all.
“I wanted to empty the clip tonight,” McCollum said. “And I thought I did that.”
He also had a little help from Turner.
The oft-maligned small forward, whose $70 million contract and up-and-down production has spurred harsh criticism from Blazers fans, earned every penny of his deal Sunday. He finished with 14 points — double what he had scored the rest of the postseason combined — seven rebounds and two assists, important production that felt heavier because it was so timely. Most of the damage came in the deciding fourth quarter, after Hood left with a hyperextended left knee, and was vital to the Blazers’ win.
Turner played the entire fourth and initiated the Blazers’ offense for long stretches, scoring 10 points and handing out two assists. He sealed the win by nailing two free throws with 8.0 seconds left.
“Things play out the way they’re supposed to,” Turner said. “Just me being a pro, being in the league so long and fortunate to be in situations (like this) throughout my career. I kind of knew in pressure time, I’d be fine. It’s just how I’ve always been.”
Added Stotts: “Evan has been in big games. He’s a big-game player.”
Now, the big games will continue for at least one more round, to a place they haven’t been in 19 years. The reigning-champion Warriors will be favored, of course. But so were the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. And so were the Nuggets after taking a 3-2 lead in conference semifinals.
And they’ve overcome it all.
As they charge forward, visiting terrain no Blazers team has in nearly two decades, there’s a sense they are simply approaching the next phase rather than the beginning of the end.
‘We feel like we still have a lot of basketball to go,” Hood said.
After the game, Lillard finished up a postgame television interview and headed to the Blazers’ locker room by himself. On the way, he stopped to sign a couple autographs for fans hanging over the corner railings, strutted past a throng of supporters screaming his name and started skipping.
Like a kid, Lillard skipped, over and over down a back hallway.
Then he slowed down and clasped his hands around the back of his head, cupping his arms forward to nearly shield his face. Before he reached the locker room door, the weight of the moment hit him, his emotions overwhelmed him and the franchise cornerstone started to tear up.
By the time he finally pushed open the locker room door and joined his teammates, a roar boomed so loud you could hear it down the hall.
“We had the roster turnover four years ago and everybody was quick to shoot us down, count us out,” Lillard said. “And at that point, we didn’t know for sure what direction we were going to go in. But we definitely leaned in on the culture that we wanted to create, doing things the right way, working hard, being about each other. We really built that up from the jump. Everybody is invested in what we’ve created.
“And I think when we come out on top in a game like this, in a tough series like this, you see it in everybody’s celebration. Everybody’s excited, because we all played a part in it. You don’t just create this type of thing with a player. It takes everybody to be all in. That’s what it was tonight.”
Inside the locker room, new owner Jody Allen was one of the people to address the team after the game. She told them how proud she was, how impressed she was, and how excited she was — for the victory and for what lies ahead.
Then she urged them to keep this special season going.
“I guess life balances itself out,” Turner said. “I’m not saying this makes up for the tragedy we’ve had. But … you could kind of feel it was going to be a special year. Sometimes, not to make it weird, but the spirits of Nurk, the spirits of Paul, are alive and well. I think it’s great for Jody to be able to support us and do all that great stuff. This win is just as much for her as it is for everybody back in Portland.”