The door was stuck, and C.J. McCollum had to go. There was a game to be played in less than 90 minutes, and pro players have their routines. But the door in one of the rooms near the Portland Trail Blazers’ locker room at Moda Center was stuck, and the handle wouldn’t move, either in the room or outside it, and McCollum had to go.
Yet while someone fetched a key, the fifth-year guard chatted amiably with the strangers that had just interviewed him. It was in keeping with his character -- a talented but humble kid from Canton, Ohio, that rose from unheralded and barely recruited out of high school to play at Lehigh University -- an outstanding school, noted for its engineering program, in the Patriot League.
Yet few engineers or Patriot League grads make in the NBA. McCollum, a journalism major (not many of those playing in the L, either), has made it, though. Averaging 22.1 points per game and shooting a seemingly unreal 54.7 percent on 3-pointers this season, McCollum and Damian Lillard are the unquestioned leaders of the Blazers and one of the top backcourts in the game, each capable of taking over at a moment’s notice.
They seek to raise the Blazers past the first round, where Portland’s season has ended two of the last four seasons. With center Jusuf Nurkic around for a full season after last February’s trade-deadline deal with Denver, the Portland has hopes they can be a top four seed. In the midst of the $106 million extension he got in 2016, McCollum also stepped out in the shoe game this summer, joining Dwyane Wade and his Portland teammate Evan Turner as an endorser with Li Ning, the Chinese shoe company, with a five-year deal. He continued preparing to take my job with his annual interview of Adam Silver. And, finally, someone managed to open the door.
Me: Tell me how the season’s gone so far.
C.J. McCollum: I think we’ve been up and down, honestly. Not finishing games at the end. The only convincing loss we’ve had is that game with the Raptors, where it wasn’t really close from the second quarter. But we had the buzzer beater with Blake (Griffin), and Giannis (Antetokounmpo) being Giannis, and the last game against the Utah Jazz, being up, what was it, up six with three minutes left , possession up five with two minutes left. Those are games we have to be able to win, but it’s a good learning experience for us. In order to win games, you have to figure out how to get through them after you lose them.
Me: The ball’s in the right guys’ hands at the end?
CJM: Yeah. We’ve got to be better. You’re looking at the turnovers one game, then I miss a free throw (against the LA Clippers). It’s uncharacteristic, but it can happen. You open the door up to great players, it’s a league of very capable guys. And if they see they have a chance to win it, you never know what’s going to happen. A guy may hit a three or just make a great shot down the stretch.
Me: I know of coaches who literally walked the streets after losses, it was so hard on them. Do you stew after tough ones or do you have to flush them in order to be ready for the next one?
CJM: It hurts. It hurts, especially when you’re in position. I’m a career, 80, 85 percent (free throw) shooter. Shot 91 last year. You go to the line, and you’re thinking, this is cash, the game’s over. You miss that first one, and literally after I missed it I said, man, they’ve got a chance to hit a three here. You make the second free throw, and you’re looking, you know Blake, you know Austin (Rivers), you know they’re thinking ‘no overtime; let’s get this over with and go home.’ And the three goes up, and all you’re thinking is, one possession. Maybe you missed a shot; maybe you missed a defensive assignment. One possession is the difference in that game.
Me: You and Dame, you’ve taken possession of the team. So when you hit a little rough patch, do the two of you lead verbally, or is it just, let’s both play better to get ourselves out of this?
I mean, I figured why not? Why not recruit someone you think can help your team? I just told him the truth. ... I told him one time how he could help our team, and that was basically the end of it."
CJM: It’s everything. We know independently, separate besides everything we do as a team, it’s on us. The ball’s in our hands the last five minutes. It’s our decision to hit the pocket pass, hit the roll/replace guy. It’s a guard’s game. Pick and roll-wise, you think about it, we’re in every coverage offensively and defensively down the stretch, unless you’re going against a team that’s more post oriented. But for us, we’ve just got to get better. We’ve discussed how the season’s going ... it could be a lot worse. It could be a lot better. But it’s good that this is happening now, get this out of the way. So when you get into November, December, and as the New Year comes around, you have all these learning experiences. And you have more play calls that you know can work down the stretch, and you’re able to go to those.
Me: You guys both recruited Carmelo hard in the summer. Did you ever think you had a real shot at any point?
CJM: I mean, I figured why not? Why not recruit someone you think can help your team? I just told him the truth. I spend my summers in New York anyway -- I’m there with my girl, anyway -- so seeing him work out in the same gym and having the same trainer, I didn’t harp on it. I told him one time how he could help our team, and that was basically the end of it. I felt like when someone’s a free agent and you know them and you’re around them, you need to share how you think they can help you and how you think you can help them. They have the right to make their own decision, and I think he’s happy where he’s at, and I wish him the best except when they play us.
(Editor's Note: Anthony wasn’t a free agent last summer, but he had approval power over any potential trades)
Me: So, they wound up keeping the team pretty intact from last year. Now, you can look at that two ways: they have confidence that our core group will continue to improve, or that we didn’t do very much while other teams did, and we’re further behind. Where do you fall?
CJM: I think that we’re getting better, collectively. You look at how we’re performing ... Our Defensive Rating is higher, and offensively, although we’re not shooting the ball particularly well, we’re still in the top 10 in offense. We’re doing things the right way. We just have to close games out. Like I said before, the line between wins and losses is thin. It’s one possession here, one possession there. We’ve got to do a better job, especially at home. We’ve played particularly well on the road, but those first halves, we’ve had some slow starts. We’ve got to get off to better start in these games.
Me: It seems like a lot of teams are choppy. And I know it’s that way usually at the beginning of the year. But do you think the fact that the preseason was shortened, and vets didn’t get to go up and down the floor even for just a few minutes over five or six games like they used to has impacted that at all?
CJM: I try not to make excuses. I feel like we know what the dates are ahead of time. You know when you need to be ready mentally and physically, and it’s your job to do that -- although I didn’t play the first game (McCollum was suspended for the regular season opener after taking a couple of verrry small steps off the bench during a preseason game in October). I was ready for the games after that, and I think the rest of the league (was) as well. You can look at it on the flip side and say that defenses should be worse. Guys shouldn’t be in good shape defensively, and we should score more points. Because that means guys had less time to get together, a lot of new guys moving around different franchises and different teams. So we just have to do better collectively, and that’s not just my team, all teams in general. I think you’ll see the basketball and the level of play continue to rise as guys get more comfortable.
Me: I wanted to ask you about your shoe deal with Li Ning, and how you researched that before you decided. What was important to you?
CJM: A lot of things were important. I think the biggest thing is going somewhere where you’re wanted and needed. I always say that mutual admiration. It’s kind of how I chose Lehigh, and Lehigh chose me. It was a situation where we both felt like we could help each other, help one another, them being a big brand in a place like Asia, having that big influence and being able to help them branch out to the United States -- more specifically, Portland, Oregon, and Canton, Ohio, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Obviously those cities will become more familiar with the brand. Overall, I’m thankful for the opportunity. As a kid growing up in Canton, Ohio, you never see yourself in a position to play in the NBA, much less have somebody pay you to wear shoes. It’s a blessing in itself. I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to represent a brand, and hopefully reach out and gain more information on them, and them gain more information on players in the United States, and little kids. Guys like DWade and ET (Evan Turner), guys who’ve been in the brand before me, have been very helpful telling me about the brand, and informing me on ways to improve. Telling me about what China’s going to be like, having gone there in the past. I’m looking forward to it.
Me: I assume you talked with Errick about it as well?
CJM: Yeah, I talked to my brother. He was in the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) a few years ago, and with him being in the EuroLeague now with Efes (Pilson), I’ve been very familiar with the CBA. Not only Li Ning, but Anta and the other brands as well. The research was in place, and I felt like the comfort was all that matters, being comfortable. I had my orthotics in place. I had shoes that were comfortable and to my liking. I always say, it’s not the shoes; it’s the player. If you can hoop, you can hoop.
Me: That’s true -- but your feet are your career.
CJM: They are. That’s why it’s important that you have the orthotics in place. I had another foot scan and I went through the process of having the molds in place, to where you need your feet, you need your orthotics. But having removable orthotics helps a lot, because you can take them out of different shoes. You just have to make sure they fit.
Me: How big will it be having a full year of "The Beast" (Nurkic) with you?
CJM: We’re looking forward to it. We’ve gone through a full training camp now. He’s more familiar with our play calling; more familiar with our culture and our chemistry. And the city in general. He’s comfortable here. We’re looking forward to doing something special ... we’ve got 74, 75 games left plus playoffs. We’ll have to continue to either build on what we did at the end of last season, go forward, and when April comes around we’ll be that much better.
Me: Speaking of April: you’ve been in the playoffs each of your first four seasons here, but you’ve only gotten out of the first round once. How do you get over that hump?
CJM: I think these close games we’re losing right now, those are games we have to win to put ourselves in better position in the playoffs, be a better seed than the eighth seed. You don’t want to be fighting in April, fighting for a spot. You want to have your spot solidified, so now you’re working on rotations, everything’s in place and you’re trying to get healthy for the playoffs. That’ll be the next step for us. We haven’t been in that position in a few years where we’re locked in early. You don’t want to plan that last week out, and then be at the mercy of the schedule. So that’s the goal. And then you go into the playoffs understanding that it’s not going to be easy, that you have to win on the road and protect your home court.
Me: So, what are you going to give me when AU beats Lehigh this year?
CJM: I’ll get you some Li Nings and a C.J. McCollum jersey.
Me: Like that. And, in the unlikely, wholly unexpected event that Lehigh cheats and somehow beats AU, what would I have to get you?
CJMcC: I see you got some Common Projects on. Give me some, and maybe a pocket square with some details.
Me: Deal. And it’s on tape.
CJMcC: It’s on tape.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
I love it when a plan comes together.https://t.co/JVEq8ScDGC— Sam Hinkie (@samhinkie) November 2, 2017
-- Former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie (@samhinkie), Thursday, 12:23 p.m., referring to the Houston Astros’ verrrry similar strategy to his own celebrated/notorious “Process” -- using analytics combined with terrestrial information to maximize the odds of success in as short a time frame as possible. The Astros’ approach, detailed in a Sports Illustrated cover story in 2014 headlined “Your 2017 World Series Champs,” indeed won the World Series in 2017 last week with a Game 7 road triumph over the Dodgers.
THEY SAID IT
Immediately, I knew something was off, but when I landed, it wasn’t a huge amount of pain. I rolled over and saw my foot, and it was pointed in completely the wrong direction. My first thought was, “Oh. This isn’t good. There’s something very wrong here.”
-- Boston’s Gordon Hayward, in a first-person account of his gruesome season-ending injury, on his Facebook page last week.
“I understand people keep saying that and thinking that. But the reason it doesn’t make sense is because if he plays in L.A. or he plays on the moon, he can only shoot movies for three months. It’s not like, it doesn’t matter -- even if he played in L.A. and he wanted to be in a movie, he can’t shoot from, basically, September through June…we’re doing fine without him living here and playing here.”
-- Maverick Carter, LeBron James’ business partner at Springhill Entertainment, on "The Rich Eisen Show", debunking a popular theory that LeBron James would opt to play for the Lakers next season so that he’s in closer proximity to movie and/or television studios. Carter said the main impetus for James’s decision will be where he can win.
"At halftime Danny Ainge tells me that Tiger's making a run. He's like, 'get thrown out and come back and watch with me.' It's like the first play of the third quarter, I go for it. Like, yelling 'ahh!’ ... He just stares at me. Nothing. And during a free throw he tells me to come over and he's like, ‘I wanna watch it too.’ ”
-- Doc Rivers, to Golf.com, detailing the time he tried to deliberately get thrown out of a game so he could watch Tiger Woods at the Masters.
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