Blazers beat Denver, advance to first Western Conference Finals since 2000

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Sunday’s Game 7 between the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets was not a pretty one.

The Nuggets, who had relied on Portland’s inability to hit a jumper for the entirety of the first quarter, never were able to capitalize on an early 17-point lead. Slowly but surely, it dribbled away from the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs until the Blazers crept back into the game. By halftime, Portland had cut the gap to just nine points.

Then, with 12.1 seconds left on the clock at the end of the third quarter, CJ McCollum hit a floater to briefly put Portland ahead, 71-70.

It was a shot that would foreshadow how the fourth quarter would go.

McCollum, who scored a total of 37 points on 17-of-29 shooting to go with nine rebounds, was Portland’s hero. His face steely and flat, Portland’s “other” guard kept scoring and making impact plays.

A layup with eight minutes left. A rebound with seven minutes left. A chase down block with 4:44, then a recovery four seconds later to contest a Torrey Craig 3-pointer that would have cut the lead to one. Another skying rebound with 4:09. A pull-up 16-footer with 2:57. A second at 1:25.

Then finally, the dagger that sealed the game.

Save for which side of the floor it came from, it was a move that mirrored Michael Jordan’s shot over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. With Craig guarding, McCollum got Craig to put on skates one more time for the signature bucket with 12.4 seconds left.

For the Nuggets, it was a lesson that perhaps only the young can learn. That is, how to close out in the biggest moments. Jamal Murray went 4-of-18, scoring 17 points. Paul Millsap struggled similarly — a testament to Terry Stotts’ decision to put Zach Collins on him in Game 6 — shooting just 3-of-13. Nikola Jokic scored 29 points to go with 13 rebounds, but had just two assists.

In Portland, as fans rejoiced, it was the payoff the Trail Blazers had been waiting for since their first-round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans last season. It came in odd fashion, too.

Damian Lillard, who looked timid all game, used Denver’s concentration on him to his advantage in the final quarter. Instead of letting the Nuggets force the ball out of his hands, the Blazers star instead purposefully deferred. To McCollum, to Evan Turner, to Enes Kanter… to anyone who was in position to make the right play.

Turner, who hadn’t had a made field goal since Game 2 and who had just two baskets all series leading into Sunday, came up big. The Blazers’ point-forward guarded Millsap and Jokic while scoring 14 points off the bench for Stotts. Turner was impactful, including six free throws in the fourth quarter. No bigger were the two that Turner sank with eight seconds to go, the last of which pushed Portland’s lead to four.

In their second-straight series ending with a Game 7, Denver played uneven down the stretch. They gave Portland several chances to stop their eventual run, which the Blazers did. Despite the obvious advantage of the Nuggets’ defensive strategy against Portland, it was the visiting team that was able to counterpunch in a way that pushed the more experienced team to the next round.

The Trail Blazers are heading to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000. Sunday will be huge in Rip City, as will Monday morning, all the way until Tuesday when they’ll meet the Golden State Warriors in Game 1.

For the Nuggets, it will be a chance to learn from their mistakes, and regroup, and try again next year.

The Blazers beat the Nuggets, 100-96, in Game 7.