- While Damian Lillard has been the story of the NBA playoffs so far, his running mate C.J. McCollum has been lights out and has elevated his game to new heights.
There will be moments when it isn’t Dame Time, even though it didn’t feel like that could be the case against the Thunder. But when there are instances that Portland’s hero in No. 0 isn’t in position to save the day, it’s on C.J. McCollum to lead the Trail Blazers.
While Damian Lillard has looked like the clear-cut postseason MVP through five games, his running mate has also elevated his game from the regular season. It would be an understatement to say McCollum was shooting lights out from three in the first four games against the Thunder. He connected on more than half of his attempts, and went 10-for-17 from deep in the games in Oklahoma City. With Lillard and Al-Farouq Aminu as the only other players who hit multiple triples over the two road games, it was key for McCollum to shoot as well as he did.
He’s a 40% three-point shooter for his career in the regular season and postseason, so it’s not too shocking he was hot while Portland jumped out to a 3-1 lead. But his four makes a game were a decent increase from the 2.8 triples per game he averaged the last two postseasons. With Lillard spending much of the series taking shots so deep even Stephen Curry would be impressed, McCollum stepping up and consistently hitting off the dribble when the ball was out of Lillard’s hands helped break Oklahoma City’s back.
After a poor start to Game 5 thanks to foul trouble, the Trail Blazers needed McCollum to step up in the fourth before Lillard could close out the series. He did just that by dropping 10 in the quarter, including a game-tying bucket with less than a minute left.
His three-point marksmanship wasn’t on display that game, but he still demonstrated his ability to create his own shot off the dribble in times of need.
With McCollum and Lillard being the only guys in the offense who can be expected to score that way on a nightly basis, they also bear the burden of having to help set up their teammates consistently.
In the regular season, Evan Turner and Jusuf Nurkic played a big part in getting others involved as they ranked second and third on the team in assists behind Lillard. McCollum checked in at fourth, which is only but so remarkable when the team was 25th in the league in that category. And with Nurkic out for the playoffs and Turner only averaging 11.2 minutes so Aminu and Maurice Harkless can stay on the floor more, McCollum has even more reason and pressure to pick up the slack in the assisting department.
As with his three-point shooting, he was a game-changer in the first four contests of these playoffs by dishing to role players for looks right at the bucket or from beyond the arc. Of his 20 assists in the opening round, 18 produced a three or shot at the rim.
Like Oklahoma City, Denver’s regular season against Portland should have the two seed feeling confident going into the matchup. The Trail Blazers went 1-3 against the Nuggets, with the one win coming the night McCollum had six helpers. In the three games he played against the Nuggets (he missed one due to late-season injury), McCollum had 10 assists, and nine of them were for shots under the basket or from long distance.
While the majority of McCollum’s dimes will be to role players in more need of the assistance to get a shot at this level of the season, he could change the outlook of any given game if he can help out Lillard a bit more. Only three of McCollum’s assists in the Oklahoma City series were to Lillard, which is the same amount he had in three meetings against the Nuggets. While Lillard can certainly be a human torch who catches fire and burns a team’s season to the ground with little to no guidance, it’s always nice to have somebody else provide a helping hand when possible.
Of the likely defenders Denver will throw at him, McCollum had his most success as a passer against Malik Beasley and Jamal Murray and Gary Harris were the best at forcing McCollum into turnovers, something he avoided entirely in the one regular season victory on April 7.
Monte Morris, Torrey Craig and Will Barton could also get a shot at McCollum. If Beasley, Murray or Harris falter and one of Denver's secondary defenders can become a CJ Stopper, it could shape the series like Harris’s defense on Derrick White did in the triumph over San Antonio.
But the most vital aspect of how McCollum fares against the Nuggets is as a shooter. McCollum was only 5-for-19 from three in the previous matchups and even went 0-for-4 in a 33-point effort. In Portland’s lone win, where McCollum had six assists, he also had just nine points and went 1-for-5 from deep.
The regular season meetings, much like the ones with the Thunder, all went down to the final moments. If McCollum can shoot better against Murray and Craig than he did in the regular season, and potentially get more shots at Nikola Jokic off switches through pick-and-roll, Portland might have all it needs to reach the Western Conference finals.
Most eyes will be locked on Lillard after his performance against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. And they should be. But the Nuggets are also charged with paying proper attention to McCollum and limiting him from taking over.
Getting McCollum going means the Trail Blazers have a second player with the potential to drop 30 at will and hit clutch shots when the time calls. If the Nuggets slow him down, the Trail Blazers’ offense is at risk of becoming as simplistic as Bel-Air Academy’s “Pass it to Will” system. Either way you look at it, McCollum has the power to shift the balance in the series.
Even on a night when Lillard drops 50, McCollum will have to put forth a signature moment at some point. Even though the lasting image from last series was Dame waving goodbye as the cameras focused on him, it never happens without McCollum’s fourth-quarter heroics.