Josh Peter, USA TODAY
Published 8:19 p.m. ET May 12, 2019
SportsPulse: The demise of the Warriors dynasty is on hold. USA TODAY Sports’ Josh Peter breaks down how even without Kevin Durant, they showed why they’re still the team to beat in the NBA playoffs.
Clank, clank, clank.
Damian Lillard’s missed shots Sunday during Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals went from a source of concern to a source of hope as the Portland Trail Blazers now prepare to face the Golden State Warriors in the next round of the playoffs.
“Dame Time,” they call it, when Lillard lights things up with his long-range shooting and propels the Blazers. But on Sunday against the Denver Nuggets, with Lillard on his way to a 3-for-17 shooting debacle and the Blazers down by 17 points in the second quarter, Portland had to prove it’s more than a one-man show.
Mission accomplished after a 100-96 victory over the Denver Nuggets in which one thing become exceedingly clear: Lillard’s backcourt mate, C.J. McCollum, looks ready for prime time.
Usually overshadowed by Lillard, McCollum scored 37 points on 17-for-29 shooting from the floor and also had nine rebounds — and a memorable postgame moment. Making his way off the court, McCollum stopped for an interview with ESPN analyst Doris Burke.
“C.J.,” she said, “it always feels a little bit like when your team is questioned about the viability of the backcourt after the failures of last year’s playoffs, it’s your name that comes up. How much fuel do you get from those kind of questions?”
McCollum replied, “Honestly, I got enough motivation. I got it out of the mud. I went Lehigh University, you know what I’m saying?”
His voice cracked as he continued.
“No one’s ever been drafted from there before,” said McCollum, who Portland selected 10th overall in 2013 draft. “So for me, it’s about showing what I can do every night and keeping the door open for the next mid-major.”
These postgame interviews are usually handled by Lillard.
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“He’s the heart and soul of our team and he’s done a great job of empowering us and leading us,” McCollum said. “… I just kept trying to be aggressive and he seen that I had it going, so he kept making sure I was staying involved in the offense and taking shots.”
In the final minute, with Portland clinging to a 96-95 lead, the Blazers got the ball to McCollum and cleared out. He made a 16-foot jumper with 12.4 seconds left and the Nuggets got no closer.
As Lillard struggled, Portland needed more from its bench. Evan Turner led the way with 14 points and seven rebounds, and Zach Collins chipped in seven points and five rebounds.
“It’s unbelievable to see how hard everybody worked,” McCollum said.
Lillard kept working, too. He finished with 13 points and helped make up for his woeful shooting with 10 rebounds, eight assists and three steals. It’s important for the Blazers to know they can adjust like they did Sunday considering what’s coming up.
Dame Time won’t be enough on game time Tuesday, when the Trail Blazers play the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
If the Blazers have any chance of stopping the Warriors, they’ll need to rely on more than a single star.
Follow Josh Peter on Twitter @joshlpeter11.