ORLANDO, Fla. — CJ McCollum is back, which requires a bit of context and clarification.
That’s because, until Saturday’s dramatic 126-122 play-in victory against the Grizzlies, any mention of “McCollum” and “back” carried a painful and negative meaning for the Portland Trail Blazers’ crucial shotgun rider and No. 2 punch to Damian Lillard’s No. 1. For much of his time here in the NBA restart, McCollum winced whenever that part of his anatomy — a fractured vertebrae is the diagnosis — was raised in conversation and especially when it was pushed on the floor.
But now? Perhaps the basketball gods are ready to have mercy, not only on McCollum, but the Blazers and their chances of showing some staying power in their upcoming first-round playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.
And that’s really what this is all about: the next step. The Blazers seemed poised to power past the young and inexperienced Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference no matter what; Lillard’s scorching performances of late virtually guaranteed that, and Memphis needed to win two games anyway. However, the Blazers will now strut into their series with the Lakers because of what McCollum showed Saturday when he was bouncy and rolling in the fourth quarter of a tight game.
His 29 points and overall presence were a big confidence boost for Portland because not only did he help slay Memphis, but maybe the demons in his aching back as well. McCollum scored eight points in the final 3 1/2 minutes, including isolating for a pull-up 3-pointer and also a step-back mid-range jumper that were back-breakers for the Grizzlies.
On a few late possessions, Lillard — who supplied so many important fourth-quarter buckets for Portland in the previous three tense games — surrendered the ball to McCollum; that’s how much confidence Lillard had in his backcourt mate.
Lillard said: “Sometimes it’s taking a step back and letting somebody else be out front. CJ got going and got rolling. You’ve got to recognize situations like that, take a step back and allow that to happen.”
McCollum suffered from an L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) over the last week. He shot 2-for-14 against the Mavericks in his lowest moment. While it’s premature to declare him totally healed and 100 percent healthy, some of the fears of McCollum being hobbled have subsided. Actually, McCollum began to feel frisky the previous game when he scored 25 against the Nets. Before then, the Blazers’ backcourt was heavily imbalanced, with Lillard carrying the team on his, ahem, back for four games.
“A healthy CJ is pretty good,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts.
While Lillard gets the applause and franchise tag and this season plenty of MVP talk, all of which is deserved, McCollum’s importance cannot be overstated. The Lillard-McCollum backcourt is one of the league’s finest, and has been for the last four years, with their ability to both create off the dribble and shoot with range making them deadly. Their chemistry is so pure — helped by their close friendship and absence of jealousy — that Portland has always resisted any urge to break them apart, despite pleas from a portion of the basketball audience.
The theory says Portland can only go so far with a pair of smallish guards who dominate the ball and are average defenders. It’s true that Portland in the Dame-CJ era has only reached the Western Conference finals once, although to be fair, Portland never was the dominant seeded-team or a strong postseason favorite in the Steph Curry Warriors Era and now, the LeBron James-Lakers Era.
Still, Lillard believes this is the best all-around and balanced team he’s had in Portland, which means the Blazers are a No. 8 seed only in the figurative sense. Because of that, Lillard says Portland has a renewed spirit and won’t concede anything against the Lakers.
“We didn’t fight as hard as we did in the bubble to get the eight seed and just go out there to get beat up on,” said Lillard.
CJ got going and got rolling. You’ve got to take a step back and allow that to happen.”
Meanwhile, Jusuf Nurkic is back after missing the pre-coronavirus portion of the season while recovering from a leg injury. The Bosnian center is coming off a solid stretch of seeding games while carrying the emotional weight caused by the long illness and then recent death of his grandmother from Covid-19.
“I didn’t want to play,” he said. “She made me play.”
Nurkic did her proud. He had 22 points and 21 rebounds against Memphis while being guarded by a good defender in Jonas Valenciunas. Lillard rates Nurkic as a top-five center in the NBA when healthy. It’s understandable why Lillard shows that much respect; Nurkic provides the low-post scoring that was missing in Lillard’s seven-year career in Portland. Even LaMarcus Aldridge was a mainly a mid-range compliment to Lillard before leaving for the Spurs.
The Blazers also return Zach Collins, another big man who played only the first few weeks before separating his shoulder. Collins played sporadically over the last few games, yet could see his playing time increase to match up with the Lakers’ frontcourt.
As complete as they may seem right now, the Blazers will go into this series without swingman Trevor Ariza, who opted out of Orlando for family reasons. Ariza is a stretchy defender with quick hands who could have supplied minutes guarding Anthony Davis and perhaps LeBron as well. And Portland is missing Rodney Hood; they signed Carmelo Anthony as his replacement.
Still, the main “missing” piece that Portland rediscovered is McCollum, fresh off a confidence boost. The Blazers haven’t forgotten what McCollum did in Game 7 last spring in Denver, when he scored 37 points and pushed the Blazers to the conference finals. And earlier this year, before the shutdown, he had a pair of 41-point games.
“I got a lot left,” said McCollum.
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