The Portland Trail Blazers have advanced to the Western Conference finals, thanks to a 100-96 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of their second-round series. This will be Portland's first WCF appearance since 2000.
Early on, it appeared the Nuggets were going to run the Trail Blazers out of the gym. They were up by 12 at the end of the first quarter, and extended that lead to 17 points in the second. But the Blazers used a nice run at the end of the half to cut the deficit to nine points. It not only made things more manageable, but gave them plenty of positive momentum.
They continued their comeback in the third quarter, getting right back into the game behind CJ McCollum, who was fantastic all night. When McCollum hit a jumper late in the quarter, it gave the Blazers their first lead of the game.
From there, the fourth quarter was a wild, back-and-forth affair as the two teams traded big baskets time and again. In the closing seconds, McCollum hit a step-back jumper to give the Blazers a three-point lead, and after some free throws on each side, that was the game.
McCollum finished with 37 points and nine rebounds to lead the Blazers, while Nikola Jokic went for 29 points and 13 rebounds for the Nuggets.
Here are some takeaways from the Blazers' thrilling victory:
McCollum delivers in the clutch
For most of the postseason, Damian Lillard has received the accolades in Portland -- and for good reason. But McCollum has been strong as well, and he kept that up with a massive performance on Sunday afternoon. When the Blazers were on the verge of being run out of the gym in the first half, McCollum was the only one scoring and keeping them in the game.
And in the third quarter, he continued to power their comeback, eventually drilling a jumper in the closing seconds of the frame to give the Blazers their first lead of the night. Down the stretch, he continued to make big plays on both ends of the floor, coming up with a huge chasedown block on Jamal Murray before hitting a step-back jumper with 12 seconds to go to seal the Blazers' win.
His performance was even more impressive considering Damian Lillard struggled for much of the night. Though he did make some big plays down the stretch as well, Lillard only scored 13 points in the game, shooting 3-of-17 from the field.
Blazers' role players step up
With Damian Lillard mired in his worst shooting performance of the postseason, the Trail Blazers needed other players to step up. McCollum was up for the task, but even he couldn't do it alone. The good news for Portland was that Evan Turner and Zach Collins had come to play as well.
Turner has taken plenty of ridicule for failing to live up to his huge contract, but the man earned his pay in Game 7. Prior to Sunday, Turner had made just three baskets and scored seven points in 140 minutes this postseason -- a stat that seems almost made up, to be honest. But in Game 7, he was everywhere, finishing with 14 points, seven rebounds, two assists and one block while also playing solid defense. Most important was that he scored 10 of those points in the fourth quarter to help secure the Trail Blazers' win.
As for Collins, he showed why the Blazers are so high on his potential. He gave them some huge minutes in Game 7, finishing with seven points, five rebounds and four blocks in a solid all-around performance. Collins' ability to space the floor while still holding his own against Jokic was vital for the Blazers with Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless struggling.
Nuggets burned by 3s and free throws
The Nuggets had a 17-point lead in the second quarter of Game 7, and appeared on their way to the Western Conference finals. But, of course, their season is now over, thanks in large part to their inability to hit two of the biggest shots in basketball: 3-pointers and free throws.
After Jokic hit two triples in the opening few minutes of the game, the Nuggets didn't hit a single 3 the rest of the way, missing 17 straight attempts to close the game, an ironic number considering they blew a 17-point lead along the way. Likewise, they struggled at the free throw line, missing 11 shots from the charity stripe in a game they lost by just four points. Jokic's miss in the closing seconds with a chance to cut the deficit to one point was the most notable, but they gave away a number of free points throughout the game.
It's tough to win any game shooting 2-of-19 from 3-point land and 28-of-39 from the free throw line, but especially Game 7 in the second round.