McCollum Leads Blazers To Game 7 Win And A Trip To The Western Conference Finals

by Casey Holdahl
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DENVER -- The Portland Trail Blazers are going to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000.

The Trail Blazers rallied from a 17-point deficit to defeat the Denver Nuggets 100-96 in front of a sellout crowd of 19,725 Sunday afternoon at the Pepsi Center. With the win, the Trail Blazers take the series 4-3 and advance to play the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Game 1 is scheduled for Tuesday at Oracle Arena.

"This is arguably the biggest win that we’ve had in the franchise for a long time," said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. "To be a part of it, to do it the way we did, I’m thrilled. I’m really happy for our guys."

While the Trail Blazers eventually emerged victorious, for the first half, it did not look as though there would be much cause for celebration for the road team. Portland shot just 7-of-25 while missing all nine of their three-point attempts in the first quarter to score just 17 points in the first 12 minutes. Meanwhile, the Nuggets, spurred on by a raucous crowd, shot 50 percent from the field, 2-of-5 from three and shots twice as many free throws as the Blazers to take a 12-point lead into the second quarter.

For as bad as the game started, it got even worse for Portland in the second quarter. The Nuggets outscored the Blazers 10-5 in the first five and a half minutes of the quarter, taking a 17-point lead after an impressive Monte Morris reverse layup. At that point, there was no reason to believe Portland would be able to do what they'd need to do to get back in the game, let alone come away with a win on the road.

But with their season one the line, Portland began to chip away, and they did so, as they've done so many times before, behind the play of their starting backcourt. Between CJ McCollum, who was the only reason the Blazers hadn't been completely run out of the building, and Damian Lillard, who struggled all night from the field but managed to get to the free throw line in the second quarter, scored nine-straight to get the deficit down to 39-31 with 5:24 to play in the first half.

"I think the biggest thing for us was to just take it one possession at a time," said McCollum. "I think we came out a little tight, defensively. Things were just too easy for them, they were getting transition baskets, dunks, drop-offs. We just needed to make it a little more difficult. I think as we settled in we realized that it's a really long game."

The Nuggets pushed the lead back to double digits, though Portland would get it back to nine before the intermission.

"We just knew we had to stick with it," said Moe Harkless. "We weren't playing great in the first half. We weren't making shots, we weren't making them feel us defensively, we knew we had to do something to turn it around. We knew we could but we had to come out in the second half with an aggressive mindset."

Which they did. While McCollum continued to do the lion's share of the work, scoring 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the third quarter, the rest of the team started pitching in just enough to take advantage of Denver's increasing inability to make shots of their own as well. Enes Kanter and Harkless, who was replaced in the second-half starting lineup by Rodney Hood, only to get thrust back into action after Hood went down with a left knee hyperextension, each scored six points to help Portland outscore Denver by five in the third to cut the lead to 72-71 going into the fourth.

From there, it was a battle of which team wanted it more and was able to get the most out of their star players. After trading baskets for the first few minutes of the fourth, Portland took a five-point lead after Lillard made his first three of the game to give the road team an 81-76 advantage.

The Blazers held on to that advantage for the next four minutes and went up by as many as seven points after Lillard's second and final three of the night with 3:20 to play. But as they had done all series, the Nuggets, behind Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, steadied themselves. When Jokic hit a floater off a Murray feed to cut the lead to one with 1:43 to play, it seemed as though they might have just enough, between the play of their stars and the energy from their home crowd, to pull out the win.

But McCollum simply wouldn't allow it. After Jokic's floater, the Lehigh grad hit a tough 16-foot pullup to push the lead back to three. When Murray hit a pullup of his own to cut it back to one, McCollum went back to work again, getting to his spot and hitting another 16-foot pullup over Torrey Craig to again push the advantage up to three, this time with just 12.4 seconds to play.

“I thought I was aggressive," said McCollum. "Before the game, my brother texted me and told me not to settle. He told me to get to the midrange, get to the floater, get to the rim as much as possible so I just tried to be aggressive. I thought I played a pretty solid game. I thought I missed a few plays. Had a pump-fake, I got the guy in the air and I shot a jumper into him. That cost us two points on that possession. I missed a lot of left-hand layups. I think I shot one too many threes. But besides that, I think I played pretty well. I wanted to empty the clip tonight and I thought I did that."

Portland intentionally fouled Jokic on the next possession, with the Serbian All-Star missing the first and making the second. The Blazers were able to get the ball in on the ensuing possession, with Evan Turner ending up being fouled and making both free throws to give the Blazers a four-point lead.

“I always just stay ready for when I need to," said Turner, who went 6-of-7 from the free throw line in the fourth. "Throughout the games leading up to this, just showing that I could defend a bigger player, shoot when I have open shots and that’s pretty much it. Things play out the way they are supposed to and just me being a pro and me being in the league for so long (I’ve been) fortunate to be in these types of situations already throughout my career. I kind of new that in pressure time, I’d be fine.”

The Nuggets advanced the ball to halfcourt after using their final timeout, but down four, all they could do was hope that the Blazers committed a foul on a made three-pointer. But with Jokic missing his deep attempt and Portland not making an egregious mistake, the road team was able to secure the win, celebrate on their opponents' court and book a trip to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in nearly two decades.

“I think it speaks to the character of our organization, what we’ve become," said Lillard. "Obviously, we had the roster turnover four years ago and everyone was quick to shoot us down and count us out. At that point, we didn't know for sure what direction we were going to go in but, we definitely leaned on the culture we wanted to create. We leaned on that – doing things the right way, working hard, being about each other and not being about one guy or two guys. I think we really built that up from the jump. To have that, it takes everybody."

McCollum carried the Trail Blazers throughout the game, finishing with 37 points on 17-of-29 shooting from the field to go with nine rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block in 45 minutes. The 6-4 guard out of Lehigh came up with big shot after big shot Sunday afternoon, including multiple tough jumpers late in the fourth quarter.

Lillard made just three of 17 shots from the field but came within a few assists of a triple-double with 14 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists while also logging three steals in 45 minutes.

Kanter finished with a double-double of 12 points and 12 rebounds and Turner, maligned by many for most of the postseason, finished with 14 points, including numerous free throws to ice the game, seven rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes.

Jokic led the Nuggets with 29 points and 13 rebounds in 42 minutes.

Now the Trail Blazers head to the bay area to face the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Tipoff is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. on ESPN.

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