How the Blazers punched their ticket to the Western Conference Finals

The Portland Trail Blazers are going to the Western Conference Finals.

The Portland Trail Blazers are going to the Western Conference Finals.

The Portland Trail Blazers are going to the Western Conference Finals.

Damn, it still doesn’t feel real.

CJ McCollum was the hero on Sunday afternoon, putting up a stat line straight out of 1987. He scored 37 points with only three 3-point attempts, helping the Blazers overcome a 17-point first half deficit and punch a ticket to the conference finals for the first time in 19 years.

3 Observations

CJ McCollum exploiting the defense

McCollum is really good at scoring and downright deadly in the mid-range. Tonight he did much of his damage attacking Denver’s big men in the pick and roll to create open shots in the hole in the defense in the middle of the court.

Watch on this play how McCollum identifies the defense before he comes out of the screen and is already heading toward the basket as Nikola Jokic is still jumping out to the perimeter, making it impossible for the defender to recover. CJ scores easily.

McCollum’s only assist of the night was also ridiculous. A ball-handling delight, burning a hard hedge from Mason Plumlee and then whipping a one-handed bullet to Zach Collins in the lane for the lay-up. CJ was as locked in as they come.

Damian Lillard making a difference despite a rough shooting night

Damian Lillard did not have a great night, finishing with only 13 points on 3-for-17 shooting. The ESPN telecast noted that the Denver big men were jumping out on Lillard frequently to prevent quick pull-up 3-pointers of off screens, and Kristian Palotie on Twitter suggested that the Nuggets defensive scheme was forcing Lillard into some bad decisions:

Lillard did finish with eight assists but made several uncharacteristic errors, such as missing the wide open Zach Collins on this play.

Nevertheless, Lillard’s presence softened up the Nuggets defense for McCollum. The Blazers committed only four turnovers, despite the game being a defensive slog, partially because the Nuggets were more interested in containing Lillard and forcing bad shots than aggressively creating turnovers. McCollum thrived at finding the mid-range gaps in the scheme.

Lillard also had the play that arguably sealed the game for the Blazers. A back-court interception, followed by 3-pointer, that put the Blazers up 92-85 with 3:18 to go.

Mason Plumlee had a solid series

Basketball Index’s player ratings rate Mason Plumlee surprisingly(?) high. He scores B- or better in every category except defensive rebounding and perimeter shooting and has an A- or better in five categories. He did not produce eye-popping numbers in this series, or in the playoffs in general, but he played serviceably both with Jokic and as back-up center. He even looked good on defense in game 7, picking up a nice block against Enes Kanter, getting his hand on the ball on a couple of drives, and helping to contain Lillard out of the pick and roll.

2 Questions

Is this a Zach Collins break-out series?

Collins had a second consecutive solid game off the bench for the Blazers, finishing with 7 points and 5 rebounds. He’s generally managed to avoid the unforgivable gaffes that marred past performances, and even looked competent on offense at times.

Head coach Terry Stotts desperately needed Collins today when starting forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless started the game playing terribly. Aminu wouldn’t return after only seven minutes in the first quarter and Harkless only saw action when Rodney Hood went down with a knee injury.

Collins was instrumental in plugging the gaps at forward and the Blazer faithful are taking this as a sign that the Gonzaga product may finally be turning the corner after two seasons of up-and-down performances.

What happened to Aminu’s 3-pointers?

Aminu’s poor performance was mildly alarming. He had been the team’s best defender, second best rebounder all season and historically a 40+ percent 3-point shooter in the playoffs. But in this series Aminu’s shot deserted him, going only 5-for-23 on 3-pointers (21.7 percent). When he started the game playing poorly on defense Stotts had little choice but to bench Aminu. The Blazers will need more from him against the Warriors

One Prediction

CJ’s block will go down as a huge moment in Blazers history

The Blazers needed every one of McCollum’s 37 points to win this game, but a huge block in the final moments may go down as the most remembered individual play from this series (which is saying something given that the series included a quadruple overtime game);


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