Damian Lillard’s shots kept banging off the backboard, rattling off the rim, going everywhere but through the hoop.
The Trail Blazers are going to the Western Conference finals, though, because CJ McCollum had his back.
McCollum scored 37 points and added a crucial chase-down block in the closing minutes that helped the Blazers beat host Denver 100-96 on Sunday to advance to their first conference championship since 2000.
They’ll open Tuesday night in Oakland against the two-time defending NBA champion Warriors in a series pitting Portland’s Seth Curry against his big brother, Golden State guard Stephen Curry.
Lillard scored 13 points and made just 3 of 17 shots from the field, but two of them were 3-pointers in the fourth quarter that put Portland ahead 81-76 and 92-85.
“It’s a luxury to have two guys like that who can find different ways to score in different ways,” Portland head coach Terry Stotts said. “CJ does it one way, Dame does it in another. On a night when Dame struggled shooting the ball, CJ came up big.”
“CJ McCollum showed why they have one of the best backcourts in the NBA,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said. “He put his team on his back and made big play after big play.”
Photo: John Leyba / Associated Press
None bigger than when his crucial chase-down block with 4:44 left and the Trail Blazers leading 87-83.
McCollum raced to stop a breakaway layup by Jamal Murray, who had a miserable day shooting, missing 14 of 18 attempts.
“Seth did a good job of cutting off his lane and making him have to go over his head,” McCollum said. “He put it right there for me and I went and got it ’Bron style. Shout out to my guy ’Bron. It was a mini-version of ’Bron’s block on (the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala three years ago). Definitely didn’t get up as high but it was a cool play. I might get a picture of that.”
Lillard said it was just the spark the Blazers needed to complete the comeback from a 17-point first-half hole.
“Those are the plays that get teams going, coming off a turnover and they get an easy one,” he said. “At that point of the game, you want to make them work for everything.”
The Nuggets were down 96-95 coming out of a timeout before McCollum hit a pull-up jumper over Torrey Craig with 12.4 seconds left.
“All summer long, I’m going to probably be second-guessing myself at the timeout,” Malone said. “That’s a shot he makes consistently. Torrey played good defense, as good a defense you can play 1-on-1. And I was saying after we should have sent someone at him. He’s having a great game and make somebody else make a play or make a shot.”
After Nikola Jokic was fouled inside with 11.4 seconds left, he missed the first free-throw try. Jokic made the second for a 98-96 deficit.
Eric Turner then hit two free throws with eight seconds left for the final margin, and Jokic missed a long 3-point try with five seconds remaining, Turner grabbed the rebound and dribbled out the clock.
“There wasn’t going to be any quit,” Stotts said. “I didn’t think they ever stopped believing. … It was just about regrouping.”
Porzingis ‘assaulted’: Dallas forward Kristaps Porzingis, 23, emerged bloodied, angered and with a torn shirt after a weekend altercation outside of a nightclub in his hometown of Liepaja, Latvia, according to the Dallas Morning News.
A video of the incident’s aftermath, first reported Sunday by TMZ, shows Porzingis’ right eye covered with blood and a gash above the eye.
“It is our understanding that Kristaps was jumped and assaulted outside of a club in Latvia,” the Mavericks said in a statement Sunday. “We will provide an update when one is available.”