ORLANDO, Fla. — CJ McCollum is back, which requires a bit of context and clarification.
That’s because, until Saturday’s dramatic 126-122 play-in victory against the Grizzlies, any mention of “McCollum” and “back” carried a painful and negative meaning for the Portland Trail Blazers’ crucial shotgun rider and No. 2 punch to Damian Lillard’s No. 1. For much of his time here in the NBA restart, McCollum winced whenever that part of his anatomy — a fractured vertebrae is the diagnosis — was raised in conversation and especially when it was pushed on the floor.
But now? Perhaps the basketball gods are ready to have mercy, not only on McCollum, but the Blazers and their chances of showing some staying power in their upcoming first-round playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.
And that’s really what this is all about: the next step. The Blazers seemed poised to power past the young and inexperienced Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference no matter what; Lillard’s scorching performances of late virtually guaranteed that, and Memphis needed to win two games anyway. However, the Blazers will now strut into their series with the Lakers because of what McCollum showed Saturday when he was bouncy and rolling in the fourth quarter of a tight game.
His 29 points and overall presence were a big confidence boost for Portland because not only did he help slay Memphis, but maybe the demons in his aching back as well. McCollum scored eight points in the final 3 1/2 minutes, including isolating for a pull-up 3-pointer and also a step-back mid-range jumper that were back-breakers for the Grizzlies.
On a few late possessions, Lillard — who supplied so many important fourth-quarter buckets for Portland in the previous three tense games — surrendered the ball to McCollum; that’s how much confidence Lillard had in his backcourt mate.
Lillard said: “Sometimes it’s taking a step back and letting somebody else be out front. CJ got going and got rolling. You’ve got to recognize situations like that, take a step back and allow that to happen.”
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