CJ McCollum walked through the hallways near the locker rooms at Staples Center, unbothered by a question that had tripped up his peers in the NBA all season.
Best game ever? Without a blink, McCollum told the story of a win in the Patriot League tournament final his junior season, a 29-point game for Lehigh that set the stage for his breakout performance against Duke in the NCAA tournament.
The moment wasn’t what he remembered first. It was the moment before the moment.
In Game 7 on Sunday afternoon in Denver, McCollum was a star for the Portland Trail Blazers, slicing apart the Nuggets with a bag full of midrange jumpers, floaters, layups and threes. He had a memorable chase-down block. And, with the game on the line, he swished a jumper that capped a stretch of six straight Trail Blazers points during crunch time
He finished with 37 points, the most ever for a Portland player in a Game 7.
“I thought I played a pretty solid game,” he said afterward. “… I wanted to empty the clip tonight, and I thought I did that.”
But maybe it wasn’t the moment. Maybe Game 7, like that win over Bucknell seven years ago, was just the moment before the moment.
And the Trail Blazers aren’t going into the series empty-handed.
Enes Kanter, who was given away by the New York Knicks this season, has been more than adequate in replacing Jusuf Nurkic, who suffered a season-ending leg injury late in the season. Portland’s supporting cast, an emerging Zach Collins, streaky wings Rodney Hood and Evan Turner and versatile veterans Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu have all, at one point or another, tipped games in the Trail Blazers’ favor.
And then there’s Damian Lillard, probably the only player who wears a letter, not a number, on his jersey. (His “0” is for the “O” in Oakland). There’d be plenty of poetry in Lillard canning jumper after jumper after growing up just outside the shadow of Oracle Arena.
He and McCollum are dynamic enough to be a problem for anyone.
But it still might not matter.
Even with Kevin Durant missing time in the series — he won’t play in Game 1 with a calf injury and will almost certainly miss more than that — the Warriors are still the Warriors. Their championship spirit and experience, plus a full dose of Stephen Curry magic, dispatched the Houston Rockets in Game 6.
Center DeMarcus Cousins could return at some point this series, a boost for a team that’s struggled with depth at times.
But the story for the Warriors is the players who are still on the court — the ones who were there when their dynasty began.
It starts with Curry, who responded to criticism aimed his way with a couple of big games before exploding in the second half in the elimination game at Houston. He’s not the best Warriors player — that’s Durant — but he’s probably the team’s most important.
A defensive trio like Klay Thompson, who will be chasing Lillard and McCollum around all series, Andre Iguodala, who might get the other Portland guard, and a rejuvenated Draymond Green, has been so crucial all playoffs long. (Green has been especially terrific in this postseason. His worst plus/minus for a game is a minus-three, and his worst against the Rockets was minus-one).
When the Warriors are at their best, it’s because they’re stifling offenses, not because they’re out-gunning them. The made shots at the biggest moments matter — but coaches who have faced the Warriors in high-profile situations know it’s their defense that matters most.
And with that in mind, Durant’s absence will really be felt. It forces the Warriors into lineups with less defensive versatility, with less defensive skill. And it might just give the Trail Blazers a chance that few believed they’d ever get again.
Portland has handled doubts just fine this season. The Trail Blazers were a favorite to get bounced out of the playoffs after last season ended with an embarrassing first-round sweep. They were a favorite to get upset in the first round again because of a tough draw against Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder. And they weren’t supposed to win a tightly contested series against Denver, especially with Game 7 on the road.
But along the way, they had iconic moments. There was Lillard ending a series with a 37-foot shot in the face of George to cap a 50-point performance. And then there was McCollum’s big Game 7, his step-back jumper from the left elbow the biggest points of the series.