DENVER — It wasn’t hard to hear the noise coming from the Portland Trail Blazers‘ locker room. Even with the door closed and a couple thousand pounds of concrete and cinder blocks in between, the celebration pierced through a few different walls to be heard in the interview room down the hall of the Pepsi Center.
It wasn’t improbable for Portland to beat the Denver Nuggets on the road in Game 7. The Blazers are good, and they’d won a game already in Denver in the Western Conference semifinals. But it was an achievement. It was an accomplishment of a goal set before the season, to be the first Portland team since 2000 to play in the conference finals. It was a response to 10 straight playoff losses, including two consecutive sweeps, with the organization hitting an embarrassing low last season against New Orleans.
“It speaks to the character of our organization of what we’ve become,” Damian Lillard said. “Obviously we had the roster turnover four years ago and everybody was quick to shoot us down, count us out. And at that point, we didn’t know for sure what direction we were going to go. We definitely leaned on the culture we wanted to create. We leaned on that. Working hard, being about each other — not being about one guy, or two guys. I think we really built that up. To have that, it takes everybody.”
As coach Terry Stotts sat down at the podium a few minutes after the roar from the locker room, he asked for a stat sheet. He hadn’t even looked at one yet, he said. On it, maybe to Stotts’ surprise, there was Lillard’s line: 45 minutes played and 13 points — his fewest in any game of the series — on 3-of-17 shooting.
Winning a Game 7 on the road is difficult, but the consensus was that the Blazers had a chance because they have Lillard. Despite all the iconic playoff moments he’s accruing, Lillard had never played in a Game 7. It was pretty easy to prewrite the “Dame 7” headline, to anticipate some level of greatness for Lillard to unsheathe.
Instead, he started 0-of-6 from the floor and didn’t score for the first 18 minutes of the game. The Blazers fell behind by 17 points in the first half. To that point, Portland had 22 points and CJ McCollum had more than half of them.
But it takes everybody. The Blazers are far more than a superstar-driven team. Lillard credits everybody — the trainers, the coaches, the front office, the security personnel, the PR staff. If Lillard is the heart of Portland, McCollum controls the body temperature. And as Game 7 eventually tightened and the Blazers climbed back, it was McCollum who had the burden of taking them to the finish line.
“It’s a luxury to have two guys like that who can find ways to score in different ways,” Stotts said. “CJ does it one way, Dame does it another. On a night where Dame struggled shooting, CJ came up big. That’s being part of a team. Most of the time one of them is going to have something going, so you count on that. It was CJ tonight.”
Before the game, McCollum got a text from his brother, Errick, with a simple message: “Don’t settle; get to the midrange, get to the floater, get to the rim.” McCollum is at his unguardable best when he’s slithering around high screens and hopscotching his way through the paint. He has everything in play — midrange jumper, step-back jumper, floater, two hard dribbles to the rim or a pass if the defense collapses. Some like to call it getting “in his bag,” but McCollum carries around more of a leather-bound briefcase. It’s elegant, it’s professional and it’s surgical.
McCollum is a master of the midrange, and each push the Nuggets made, McCollum answered. But even with the game of his life — 37 points on 17-of-29 shooting — he was critical in his self-assessment. He remembered one play he pump-faked his defender into the air, but didn’t jump into him and draw a foul (“I cost us two points on that possession,” he said), a missed lefty layup and thought he shot one too many 3s.
“Besides that I think I played pretty well,” McCollum said in the understatement of the playoffs. “I wanted to empty the clip tonight and I thought I did that.”
Lillard and McCollum share a bond beyond the small-school element that links them together in Portland’s backcourt. They’ve grown together, they’ve hurt together, they’ve overcome together. They’ve learned to trust each other, communicating on the court sometimes with just glancing looks or subtle body language. Lillard didn’t sweat his struggles in Game 7, because he was leaning on McCollum and had no problem doing it.
“CJ had it going and when I see him in that type of zone, I’m not going to shy away from the game,” Lillard said, “but I’m not going to force anything because what we were doing was working.”
Lillard hit a couple of big fourth-quarter shots — the only two open shots he got — but he mostly stood aside and let McCollum work. There isn’t ever some dramatic conversation between them about it. It comes from the six years they’ve played together, which included some growing pains to be sure, but there’s no tug-of-war. They aren’t taking turns; they’re taking over, together.
“He seen I had it going so he kept making sure I was staying involved in the offense and getting shots,” McCollum said. “Then down the stretch I just told Coach to flatten it out, they can’t check me and I’ll get us a bucket. I’ll at least get us a good shot and that’s what happened.”
It felt like Game 7 was an opportunity for Lillard to write another chapter in the Dame Time mythology. Instead it was about McCollum and the freedom he had to operate with never so much as a side-eye from Lillard. It was about Evan Turner‘s rebirth as a capable player; about Zach Collins scratching the surface of his potential; about Enes Kanter playing through a separated shoulder while also fasting for Ramadan — which meant no medication or water (at altitude, mind you); about overcoming another setback when Rodney Hood hyperextended his knee in the second half; about a burst of energy from Moe Harkless in Hood’s place. It’s always about everybody for the Blazers, because it’s never about anybody. That’s the standard Lillard sets.
“He’s the heart and soul of our team,” McCollum said of Lillard. “He’s done a great job of empowering us and leading us.”
Waiting next, after only one day off for Portland to enjoy its accomplishment, are the champs. The Blazers flew straight to San Francisco after beating the Nuggets and are recalibrating from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and, probably at some point, Kevin Durant. The Blazers were already talking about what was next for them in the locker room, but there’s no question they are relishing a conference finals berth. Before he left to head to the podium, Lillard hugged teammates, then stepped into the training area to hug staffers.
“This feels so good!” he yelled. “I don’t even know what to say!”
He waited in the hallway for teammates Kanter and Turner to finish their news conferences, and a Nuggets ball boy looked at Lillard and offered some encouragement about the next round, about beating the Warriors.
Lillard smiled and nodded his head.
“They’re due,” he said. “They’re due.”