Damian Lillard Comes Through Yet Again as Blazers Top Nuggets to Force Game 7

The Blazers' backcourt brought its A-game on Thursday night vs. the Nuggets, as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 62 points and willed Portland to a victory to force a Game 7 in Denver.
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It’s a short list of point guards you’d rather have than Damian Lillard in an elimination game at the moment. Perhaps the list extends only as far as Stephen Curry, and even then, some Portland acolytes would try to convince otherwise. Kyrie Irving flamed out in embarrassing fashion against Milwaukee, albeit on the road. His Game 4 performance wasn’t much better, a 7-of-22 shooting effort in perhaps his final game in the home locker room at TD Garden. Lillard refused to go down at home on Thursday night. His 32-point outing in the Blazers' 119-108 victory was perfectly on-brand.

Lillard didn’t get off to a strong start in Game 6. He missed four of his first five shots, limping out of the gate as Denver took a 34-26 lead at the end of one quarter. But the misfires didn’t last long. Lillard canned six triples on the evening, including a 30-foot bomb late in the third quarter. Logo Lillard was in full force as Portland zoomed to a double-digit lead midway through the fourth quarter. On a night where Jamal Murray shot just 7-of-20 from the field, Denver couldn’t keep up.

Dame was far from alone in his scoring spree, sharing the spotlight with his backcourt mate. C.J. McCollum remained ever reliable, scoring 30 points, his 11th time putting up 20-plus points in his last 14 playoff games. He’s one of the league’s more underappreciated sidekicks. An All-Star appearance should come in the near future. 

Rodney Hood continued his strong series as well. The Game 3 hero poured in 25 points off the bench, knifing his way into the paint—his Eurostep in the fourth quarter was particularly smooth—while adding three bombs from distance. Hood is frankly one of the more playoff-tested young players around. He’s appeared in 38 postseason games since entering the league in 2014, more than Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, Lillard and McCollum in that span. LeBron James may be left asking where this version of Hood was in last year’s Finals. Regardless, Hood rose to the occasion on Thursday and won’t be afraid of the moment on Sunday.

Portland took care of business at the Moda Center, but pulling off a road upset at Mile High remains a tall task even after coming off a blowout win. The natural swing of role players should tilt back in Denver’s favor in Game 7. Will Barton and Malik Beasley (who missed all eight of his shots) will likely perform better at home. The basket is a lot larger in Portland for Seth Curry compared to Denver.

Nikola Jokic remains an impossible cover for the Blazers' undermanned frontcourt. He pounded his way to 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists for another playoff masterpiece. Jokic is averaging 24.5 points, 13.1 boards and 9.0 assists per game in the postseason. Only one other player in NBA history has averaged 24-13-9 across 10-plus playoff games: Oscar Robertson in 1963. The Serbian center is in rare company. 

This is all to say that defeating Denver on its home floor on Sunday will require a monumental effort from Portland, and Lillard more specifically. He’s fully proven his playoff chops after two of the most iconic game-winners of the decade, averaging 27.6 points in his last 25 playoff games. Another dose of Lillard magic may be necessary for Portland to advance to the franchise’s first Western Conference finals since 2000.