CJ McCollum proved to be the difference maker in Game 7, as Portland's oft-overlooked star led the Blazers past the Nuggets and into the Western Conference finals with an incredible shooting performance.
Four points. That was the difference between the Blazers and Nuggets in their thrilling Game 7 on Sunday, which Portland captured 100–96 to earn a trip to the West Finals. It was a fitting end for the best series of the postseason so far. The teams often looked tight and tired, the execution waxed and waned, but the tension was palpable, and the Blazers did just enough to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2000.
CJ McCollum was the difference maker in Game 7. The Lehigh product was by far the best player on the floor Sunday, scoring 37 points on 17-of-29 shooting, including numerous clutch makes down the stretch. It was a signature performance for Damian Lillard’s oft-overlooked backcourt partner. Lillard himself struggled until hitting a couple of late shots, recording only 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting. He was secure enough to let McCollum do the heavy lifting, and CJ rewarded the faith with incredible play in high-pressure moments.
The Blazers showed an impressive amount of resolve Sunday. Portland went down by 17 in the first half, but slowly chipped at Denver’s lead before taking the lead in the final minutes of the third. The action was incredibly suffocating in the fourth. The pace was slow. And the refs swallowed their whistles. The Blazers took advantage by spreading out the Nuggets’ defense, with Evan Turner playing critical minutes down the stretch. Playing four wings and one big for most of the fourth gave McCollum enough room in isolation to find the looks he wanted, and Denver couldn’t muster enough offense on the other end.
The Nuggets couldn’t get much production outside of Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris. Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray combined to shoot 7-of-31, not hitting any of their six three-point attempts. Both teams shot awfully from beyond the arc, but Denver’s role players especially didn’t benefit from the home shooting bump typical in these situations. Jokic was the only Nug to hit a three, and both of his came in the first quarter. The Nuggets ultimately shot a minuscule 37.1% from the field, which was their downfall.
In his second career Game 7, Jokic acquitted himself well. His defense wasn’t a fatal flaw. And though his efficiency wasn’t quite up to snuff, he scored 29 points while picking up 13 rebounds and two assists. Murray was the big disappointment. After so many impactful performances through the first 13 games of the postseason, Murray couldn’t get anything going until some fourth-quarter free throws buttressed his otherwise unimpressive stat line.
Portland was lucky to have McCollum. He and Moe Harkless were the only players on the team to shoot over 50% from the field in Game 7, and Harkless only took five shots. Zach Collins played some highly competitive minutes, and Turner’s presence was vital, but pretty much everyone else had notable struggles. McCollum’s game was made for moments like Sunday, however. As possessions ground to a halt, and each second became exponentially more valuable, having a creator like McCollum, who could not only get to his spots but make tough shots and bend the defense to get other guys open, was the biggest difference in the game’s most important minutes.
Denver’s season was still a success. From out of the playoffs to a No. 2 seed, the Nuggets simply ran into an opponent that had more playoff experience—and more playoff heartbreak. Denver is going through what every young team goes through at some point: A bitter postseason defeat. The Nuggets' young core should be together for many years (barring some insane OKC-like gymnastics), this loss will ultimately serve this group for the better in the future, particularly as the West landscape changes (as is expected) this summer.
The Blazers are moving on after two straight years of seeing their seasons end in sweeps. After a four-game humiliation at the hands of the Pelicans in 2018, Portland did not let go of the rope. The Warriors will not be a forgiving foe in the next round, and Golden State will be heavily favored to make its fifth straight NBA Finals. The Blazers will need an even better performance if they hope to take down the champions. The fact that they’ve survived long enough to reach this point, however, is a promising sign of progress.