BLAZERS SAY: WE'RE ON OUR WAY
DENVER — Let's call it the Mother's Day Miracle.
Does that work for you?
Sure, "miracle" is hyperbole.
But the Trail Blazers were in some deep doo doo — staring up at a 29-17 deficit after one quarter, a margin the Denver Nuggets stoked to 17 points in the second quarter, in a Game 7 against the team with the best home record in the NBA.
How did it feel, then, for Portland to storm back and tuck away a 100-96 victory over Denver on Sunday at Pepsi Center, propelling the Blazers into the Western Conference finals for the first time in 19 years?
"In a hostile environment like that, with so much on the line?" asked Zach Collins, then answering his own question in 21-year-old simplicity. "It's really cool."
There is little time to celebrate. The Blazers will fly out Monday afternoon for Oakland, California in preparation for Tuesday's 6 p.m. opener of the West finals against two-time defending league champion Golden State.
Talk about stepping out of the frying pan and into the oven.
But allow the Blazers and their extended "family" some rejoicing in the victorious locker room afterward.
"There was a lot of hugging, a lot of yelling, a lot of emotions coming out," Collins said. "To finally break through to get to the third round — it means so much to a lot of people. It's incredible."
General manager Neil Olshey greeted each coach and player with a hand slap and a hug as they entered the room. Owner Jody Allen — Paul's sister, who took over for the late owner after his death to cancer in October — addressed the players.
Team captain Damian Lillard was asked what the win means in terms of the team's culture.
"It speaks to the character of our organization and what we've become," said the All-Star point guard, who contributed 13 points, a career playoff-high 10 rebounds and eight assists but made only 3 of 17 shots from the field. "We had a roster turnover four years ago. Everybody was quick to shoot us down and count us out. We didn't know what direction we'd go in, but we leaned on the culture we wanted to create — doing things the right way, working hard, being about each other.
"We built that up from the jump. To have that, it takes everybody. You have to have the coaches, training staff, front office, security, PR staff — everybody is invested in what we've created. When we come out on top in a game like this, you see it in everybody's celebration. We all played a part in it. It takes everybody to be all-in."
To the Blazers, Sunday's win was no miracle, not even when 3-point shots weren't falling and Lillard was bottled up like a Pepsi and the Nuggets had leaped to a 39-22 lead.
Coach Terry Stotts called for a timeout, and as the Nuggets partisans whipped to a frenzy, Kiss' anthem — "I Wanna Rock n' Roll All Night, and Party Every Day" — played over the public-address system.
A bit early to be partying, I thought from the press box.
Turns out, the Blazers were of the same feeling.
Said Evan Turner after the clutch game of his career as a Blazer: "We huddled together and just said, 'We need to get (the score) closer. It's a long game. We haven't played well yet. Everything's going to work out.' Just like after the first quarter in Game 6 (in which they trailed 34-26), the game started to go our way."
Turner offered another nugget: "Pressure can bust pipes or make diamonds. We never thought we were going to lose."
Stotts was asked what he said to his players during the timeout to engage them in the moment.
"They're engaged," Stotts said. "There wasn't going to be any quit. They didn't ever stop believing. I didn't have to say much. It was still early enough in the game. We've found ways to come out of those holes. It was just a matter of regrouping. Trust and competing are the two biggest things for us."
Not that it was easy for Stotts to steer the Blazer jetliner to a safe landing. Lillard, blanketed expertly by the Denver defense, got only occasional good looks. The Blazers made 4 of 26 3-point attempts, missing their first 10. This was not an easy flight.
Good thing for the Blazers that CJ McCollum came to the rescue.
Lillard's backcourt partner was up to the Big Moment, bombing in 37 points — his second straight 30-point performance and third of the series — and kept the offense stirring when there wasn't much life to it.
McCollum scored eight points in the first quarter, had 15 by halftime and poured in 14 in the third period. He was as clutch as it gets down the stretch. McCollum's step-back jumper gave Portland a 94-87 lead with 2:37 left. After the Nuggets closed to within 94-93, he knocked down another step-back with 1:25 left.
McCollum did it again with Portland ahead 96-95 and only 11.4 ticks left.
"CJ wanted the ball, and he has the ability to make things happen with it," Stotts said. "We went to him down the stretch, and he made some big plays."
One of them was a run-down block of a Jamal Murray breakaway with 4:44 remaining and the Blazers on top 87-83.
"(Murray) put it right there for me, and I just went up and got it 'Bron' style," McCollum said. "It was a mini-version of the block by LeBron (James) on (Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals). Didn't get up as high, but it was a cool play ... I might have to get a picture of that one."
While McCollum was working his offensive magic, Lillard served mostly as set-up guy, driving the middle and kicking out.
"The defense (swarmed), so I just tried to focus on making the right plays," he said. "CJ had it going. When I see him in that type of a zone, I'm still going to be involved, but I'm not going to force things. What we were doing was working."
Said Stotts: "It's a luxury to have two guys like that who can find ways to score in different ways. On a (day) when 'Dame' struggled to shoot the ball, CJ came up big. Usually, one of them is going to have something going, so you count on that. It was CJ tonight."
The Blazers were fortunate, though, that after a sizzling start, the Nuggets fizzled out on offense. After making 10 of 20 shots from the field in the first quarter, they were 23 for 69 (.333) the rest of the way, finishing at .371. And they were 2 for 19 from 3-point range and only 28 for 39 (.718) at the free-throw line.
Said McCollum: "If we could get the game close, we felt that they would tighten up."
Paul Millsap made only 3 of 13 shots from the field. Jamal Murray was 4 for 18. As they game wore on, both were pulling the string on shots from the perimeter.
"You have to make shots," Denver coach Mike Malone said, "and we didn't make enough of them. And we left 11 points at the foul line. Those were really big factors."
Denver center Nikola Jokic contributed 29 points and 13 rebounds but was only 11 for 26 from the field, with Enes Kanter, Collins and Meyers Leonard making him work for everything he got. Leonard was particularly effective in his seven minutes and, though he scored only two points and had no rebounds, his plus/minus ratio (plus-nine) was best of any player in the game.
"To win this type of game, it takes everybody," Lillard said. "Jokic is such a huge part of what they do. Meyers made him work. He was physical when he had (Jokic) on the island, made him work his way up the court. Nothing was easy. It's about coming in and having an impact on the game. That was Meyers' mentality. He wanted it, and it showed."
Turner had scored seven points in Portland's first 11 playoff games. He tallied 14 on Sunday, 10 in the crucial fourth quarter. The veteran swing man — also a big factor in the Blazers' Game 6 win with seven rebounds and seven assists while not scoring a point — knocked down 8 of 9 free throws, grabbed seven rebounds and dished two assists in 19 minutes.
"It's just me being a pro and being in the league for so long," he said. "I knew that in pressure time, I'd be fine."
So were Turner's teammates. And now the pressure amps up a notch, starting with a pair of road games against the team that won the NBA title in three of the last four years.
"This team has shown a lot of toughness," said Blazers small forward Rodney Hood, who left Sunday's game with a hyperextended knee midway through the third quarter and did not return. "Now we want to keep it going. I think we have a lot of basketball left."
After what the Blazers have done, who's to argue?