Playoff games have a way of allowing narratives to fully bloom in the best possible ways. The latest example of this came on Sunday, when the man who almost single-handedly dragged the Portland Trail Blazers kicking and screaming into the franchise’s first Western Conference Finals appearance since 2000 also happened to be the guy who famously told a random Twitter user that he was trying his best.
Portland’s Game 7 win against the Nuggets was mostly fueled by the heat radiating off of C.J. McCollum’s hands as he mercilessly battered whoever was guarding him from all areas of the court. He finished the game with 37 points, nine rebounds, a steal and a block. Of course, the box score only listing one block for McCollum doesn’t do justice to the incredibly athletic and LeBron James-like nature of his defensive stop.
The totality of his performance would be considered impressive in any playoff scenario, but it was magnified due to the circumstances with which it came about, and the way it was accomplished. McCollum absolutely needed to put up these numbers for his team because those points were clearly not going to come from anybody else. Damian Lillard was a dismal 1-for-12 in the first three quarters and didn’t even hit his first three until three minutes into the fourth quarter. The other players didn’t provide much help either, with only two other players outside of the starting backcourt hitting double digits: Enes Kanter and Evan Turner (more on him later). The lack of scoring production forced Portland to have to overcome a 17-point first-half deficit, and deal with scrubs like Mason Plumlee and-1 jamming in their faces—usually a clear indication that it’s not your team’s day. Even more amazing, though, was how most of his shots down the stretch came from the maligned midrange. McCollum went with the unconventional method of just finding open space wherever he could, and firing off a shot once he got to that open space. Strangely enough, that strategy worked to perfection, even on his final shot of the game.
So McCollum’s play was not just a win for his Trail Blazers, but also one for all of the guys who love to tell analytics nerds to shove it, like LeBron James.
(In all seriousness, an open midrange shot for McCollum is a statistically better one for him to take than, say, a contested three or layup. It’s not like the analytics would tell him not to shoot that, but I digress.)
Yet even as much as McCollum’s performance was critical to the ultimate victory, another player that deserves almost as much credit for helping the Blazers pull away is Evan Turner. The $70 million man had scored just four points through the first six games of the series, but responded with 14 points in Game 7 which included 10 in the fourth quarter, and sinking the final two free throws to put away the Nuggets. It was one of those head-scratching outputs that forces one to wonder if it had more to do with terrible opposing defense than a miraculous recuperation of skill.
As much as Portland would probably like to celebrate this clutch victory, the monumental task in front of them leaves little room to relax. This series not only determined who would make the Conference Finals, but also decided which team would get to serve as cannon fodder for the Golden State Warriors, who are expecting both Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins to be healthy enough to play in that series. It’s a shame that all of the great storylines this series has to offer—Steph vs. Seth, Lillard’s homecoming in Oakland, and the Durant vs. McCollum beef that started on McCollum’s podcast—might last for only five games or so, but maybe Lillard or McCollum have at least one more supernova performance in them to at least stretch it to six.