NBA Playoffs: What Damian Lillard's struggles say about the Blazers, who took another step in their playoff evolution
Portland tied its second-round series with Denver, 1-1, on Wednesday
There's a perception out there about the Portland Trail Blazers that it's Damian Lillard or bust. When he goes nuts, like he did in the first round against Oklahoma City, they can beat pretty much anybody on a given night. When he struggles, however, where do the Blazers turn?
On Wednesday night, Portland turned to CJ McCollum and a better-than-you-think supporting cast. They turned to their defense, again better than you think. They turned to Enes Kanter, way better than you think. Lillard scored just 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting, including 1-of-7 from 3, and by extension nothing came easy all night for the Blazers. But they fought, plain and simple, trimming 31 points off of Denver's Game 1 total in a 97-90 victory to even the series, 1-1, heading back to Portland.
People love to say that a series doesn't start until the home team loses, but that's always been a bogus theory. Fact is, teams that go up 2-0 in a best-of-seven series go on to win that series over 93 percent of the time. In other words, had Portland lost this game, it would have had less than a seven percent chance, historically speaking, of coming back to win four out of five games. This was a must-win. Lillard was nowhere to be found. And they still managed to get it done.
It's never easy with the Blazers. Even when Lillard and McCollum are drilling shots, they are HARD shots. No tandem in the league has to consistently make as many tough, self-created shots as those two. McCollum did it again on Wednesday. Seriously, look at some of these shots he had to make:
When critics suggest that a "jump-shooting team" can't compete for a championship, as they used to say about the Warriors, it's these types of shots they point to as being unsustainable. But man do Lillard and McCollum put that theory to the test. McCollum was only 8-of-20 himself, but he hit huge shots. When Denver had the lead down to seven with under four minutes to play, it was McCollum who grabbed an offensive rebound off a Lillard miss, raced back behind the line, and cashed a 3-pointer.
It was, for my money, the biggest shot of the game for Portland, because Denver was surging and things were about to get really tight. Jamal Murray answered with a 3-pointer on the other end, but I'm telling you, had McCollum missed his shot and Murray's shot would've cut the lead to four instead of seven, there's a good chance this series is 2-0 Denver.
The Nuggets did their part in missing a ton of pretty decent looks, after shooting the lights out in Game 1. But you have to give the Blazers' defense some credit. In particular, Kanter. This dude has a partially separated shoulder and he is battling for his life against Nikola Jokic. And he's been huge offensively, too -- 15 points and nine boards in Game 2. Check out this offensive board and put-back:
That play right there embodies how Portland won this game, and perhaps in doing so, took control of this series: They just wanted it. That's not to say Denver didn't. This was a battle both ways. At one point, the Nuggets were out-rebounding the Blazers 20-2 in the fourth quarter, which is one of the most unbelievable stats I've ever heard. The Nuggets were all over the offensive glass as Portland was tired and hurting, Kanter's arm basically hanging on a sling, Murray making plays despite barely being able to run on a hobbled right leg. Both teams went after this thing, and it wasn't the type of win you would normally associate with the Blazers.
But they got it. They had six players score in double-digits. They played 10 guys and mustered 32 bench points. Moe Harkless had to leave the game in the first half with a leg injury and never returned, and we'll have to see what comes of that moving forward, but all said the Blazers got the split they came for and now head home with a chance to really take control of this series. You know that Lillard is going to bounce back in front of those Portland fans, who last saw him.
But knowing Lillard doesn't have to be great for the Blazers to beat a really good Denver team is a huge boost in confidence. That's what really separates teams in the NBA -- being able to win ugly, being able to impose your will in multiple ways, being able to win on the road, in the playoffs, with B-game, because anyone can win with their A-game. The Blazers took a big step Wednesday night. They didn't get the Damian Lillard they're used to getting, and they didn't go bust.
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