CJ McCollum Keeps His Word In His Return

by Casey Holdahl
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TORONTO -- It took a while, but CJ McCollum was finally able to make his return to the court prior to Portland’s 98-88 victory versus the Magic in Orlando after more than a month away dealing with injury and the birth of his first child.

In regard to the injury, a partially collapsed right lung suffered in a loss to the Celtics at Moda Center on December 4, McCollum had to remain inactive for 10 days, after which he was able to gradually ramp up his physical activity before being cleared for full contact.

“It’s been an interesting road,” said McCollum. “Having to go through the cardio aspect of it, obviously. Trying to workout, obviously you’ve got to rest first and do some breathing and things of that nature, kind of make sure everything is okay. Waiting for the lung to completely heal, getting images and then transitioning back while the team is playing and traveling.”

As for the birth, after months of anticipation and preparation, McCollum and his wife, Elise, had to wait around like all expectant parents until their first child, Jacobi James McCollum, decided to make his grand entrance into the world.

With his lung healed and his wife and newborn son safe, McCollum boarded a plane on Sunday, January 16 bound for Orlando with a game to be played the next day. But before suiting up for the first time in 18 games, McCollum had one more task he felt like he had to complete before making his return.

So when the team got together for their pregame meeting and walkthrough at the hotel in Orlando, McCollum delivered a simple message to his teammates, one meant to alleviate any concerns that his return might disrupt the improved play the team had exhibited in recent weeks with both he and Damian Lillard out of the lineup.

“CJ was home watching us play a lot of games and I feel like we’ve gotten a ton better in so many different areas during that time,” said Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups. “He recognized that and, not only recognized it, came back to the team and said ‘Don’t worry about fitting me back in. Just do what y’all do, I’ll be fine.’ That’s just the type of professional that he is. Didn’t surprise me but it was good and I’m pretty sure all the young guys were happy to hear that.”

But while words are nice, it’s actions that really count. And through his actions in the fourth quarter of Portland’s victory versus the Celtics in Boston Friday night, McCollum proved that he meant what he said.

“I get in where I fit in,” said McCollum. “I know how to play the game, I know what I have to offer to this team and I know how to contribute. I told them ‘Keep doing what y’all doing, be yourselves and I’ll do what I got to do.’”

For nearly the last decade, the fourth quarters of close games have been the purview of Damian Lillard, who has proven himself time and time again to be one of the most clutch scorers in franchise history.

But McCollum has proven himself to be no slouch in close-game situations as well, using his ample bag of ball tricks to get quality shots off at all three levels. It might not be “Dame Time,” but McCollum has a number of quality crunch-time performances on his resume, with Game 7 of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals versus the Nuggets in Denver and the 2020 play-in game versus the Memphis Grizzlies in the Orlando Bubble being two of his most memorable.

So with less than a minute to play and the Blazers trailing the Celtics by two in Saturday’s contest and with Lillard recovering from surgery back in Portland, many likely assumed that it would be McCollum who would take on the responsibility of late-game scoring. After all, he had done it plenty of times before.

And when a Jusuf Nurkic screen set well above the three-point line freeing McCollum from the rangy arms of Jayson Tatum and left him with a full head of steam versus a backpedaling Robert Williams, it seemed likely that the 6-4 Lehigh grad would get to his midrange fadeaway, one of his favorite shots, in an effort to tie the game at 102-102.

But with Jaylen Brown sinking into the paint to provide help and subsequently leaving Robert Covington, who had not yet scored despite playing nearly 39 minutes, open in the corner, McCollum didn’t hesitate to dish the ball to his teammate. And as he did, he also turned his back to the defense to provide just enough impediment to ensure Brown’s closeout would come just a half second late, allowing Covington to get a clean look which he converted to give Portland a one-point lead with 32.1 seconds to play.

Portland would once again find themselves down by one after Tatum made two free throws to reclaim the lead at 104-103 with 26.8 seconds to play. After calling a timeout to advance the ball, Covington inbounded the ball to Anfernee Simons, who has been one of the NBA’s best players in the month of January as he’s flourished in a starter role with McCollum, Lillard and Norman Powell all out of the lineup. Simons collected the ball and after surveying the court for a few moments, passed off to McCollum, who had used down screens from both Nassir Little and Covington to earn a bit of space in which to operate.

But rather than squaring up his defender -- in this case, Tatum -- and utilizing his his crossover and ability to change direction in order to get into an isolation situation, a tact he’s taken so many times throughout his career, McCollum took just one dribble and passed the ball right back to Simons, an action that drove home the message he delivered a little less than a week prior in Orlando.

“That’s normal for a young guy, best players come back, you defer to them,’ said Billups. “Everybody has a role. And so it was good for the vet, the guy to come back and say ‘Don’t do that. Just keep playing, I’ll be fine.’”

The way McCollum sees it, Simons had earned the right to take the potential go-ahead bucket, no matter how much he might have wanted to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

“(McCollum) told me ‘Keep doing what you doing,’” recounted Simons. “So I don’t really have to take a step back, he’s encouraged me to keep playing. Obviously CJ has been here a long time, in the league a long time, so he knows how to adjust and continue to do what he does, how he’s been doing for a long time.”

Simons would put the ball on the floor, getting around Williams before elevating for a running floater in the lane that hit front iron. Luckily, Jusuf Nurkic managed to secure the rebound in between five Celtics and converted a hook shot with 13.8 seconds to play in what would ultimately be the game-winner.

But even if Nurkic hadn’t saved the day, the impact of McCollum empowering his young teammates was almost certainly more important for Portland’s long term prospects than a single win at roughly the midway point of the season.

“They’ve been playing really well, I’ve been watching from afar and for me, it’s just about coming in and helping any way I can, being a professional each day and doing what I’ve got to do to help the team win,” said McCollum. “A lot of the young guys have increased roles now, they’re getting comfortable, they’re getting a chance to show what they have to offer and I’m just trying to come in and help us win.”


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