Everybody knew the stakes Saturday night when the Trail Blazers fell behind late in Game 3.
“If we lost,’’ Blazers center Ed Davis said, “it’s over.’’
The Blazers were stuck between desperate and stunned, down 85-81 to the Clippers with 3:52 left after Jamal Crawford hit a leaning jumper while being nudged by Maurice Harkless, when everything changed.
It’s when some of the Clippers’ warts became exposed – DeAndre Jordan’s free throw shooting, Blake Griffin’s rust among them – and when some of the Blazers’ uncanny ability to play above-and-beyond what conventional wisdom says a team of this experience and payroll should.
It’s when Portland closed on a 15-3 run to secure a 96-88 win to draw within 2-1 of the Clippers in this best-of-seven series.
“Now,’’ Davis said, “this is a series.’’
It was the Blazers’ most important 3:52 of the season and that frenetic finish included a speech, a three-pointer, a steal and a dunk. And ultimately, it included a message.
“It says we want it,’’ Damian Lillard said. “ We aren’t here for fake just to say ‘We weren’t supposed to make the playoffs and we made it.’ We are here to compete. We are here to win. It said a lot about our team. We really showed some fight and some heart.’’
Perhaps never before has CJ McCollum been more short, more stoic, more matter-of-fact in his postgame address than Saturday.
He likes the reliability and steadiness of statistics, and abhors the volatility of emotion, and therefore he did not want to engage in talk about the emotion of the game – the small pushing and shoving matches that flared here and there, the open-court foul on a breakaway leveled on him by Chris Paul.
Likewise, when the Blazers fell behind 85-81 and the 3:52 left on the scoreboard stared back, McCollum was intent on not blinking, lest his emotions get the best of him.
“We understood the sense of urgency,’’ McCollum said. “Statistically, teams don’t come back from 3-0 … But I never thought about losing.’’
Instead, he immediately started thinking comeback . He made a top-of-the-key three pointer with 3:31 left, his most lasting dagger in a 27-point night that included 11 field goals, several of them of high difficulty and even higher pressure.
But his most important play was still to come.
The Blazers took an 88-85 lead after they turned a missed three-pointer by Griffin and four missed free throws by Jordan into a drifting jumper by Lillard and a spinning baseline layin by Harkless.
With less than 90 seconds left, and the Clippers trying to answer, Griffin tried passing out of the post, but was intercepted by McCollum. The Blazers guard, not known for his defense, took it the length of the court, where he was fouled in midair by Paul, sending both players crashing to the floor.
As the referees reviewed the play to determine if Paul’s actions warranted a flagrant, an important meeting happened near halfcourt.
When Al-Farouq Aminu arrived near halfcourt with 1:19 left in the game and the officials at the video replay booth, he could hear Lillard beginning to raise his voice.
“He said what everybody was thinking,’’ Aminu said.
The crowd was buzzing. National television was watching. And a season still had a pulse, even though months ago some players admitted they figured by late April it would be forgotten in a three-margarita-haze somewhere in Mexico.
Soaking up that atmosphere, Lillard asked his teammates a question.
“I huddled the guys up and said ‘Are you all ready to go home? … We are going to finish this out,’’’ Lillard recalled later.
It wasn’t so much of a motivating, rallying cry as much as it was a crystalizing moment for the team, a now-or-never type of awakening.
“He basically came in there and said ‘I don’t want my season to be over,’’’ Harkless said. “I felt the same way, so I was right there with him. Just to know everybody on the court had the same mindset … I mean, that’s big time.’’
McCollum made one of his two free throws. And after Jordan split his free throws, Harkless darted from the baseline to rebound and dunk a miss from McCollum with 55 seconds left to give the Blazers a 91-86 lead.
“That play by Moe sealed the deal for us,’’ Davis said.
Who knows how much Lillard’s now-or-never speech had to do with the Blazers’ strong close to the game? Or whether it was more the Clippers’ undoing in the clutch rather than the Blazers’ rising to the occasion?
Doesn’t matter. Inside the locker room, this team looks to and listens to Lillard, and he usually delivers with something that resonates.
“That’s Dame,’’ Aminu said. “He knows us. He knows we were not ready to go home. We want to keep playing. We want to keep showing what we can do. We want to keep winning games. The fans, the city, has been behind us and believed in us, and we in turn believed in ourselves. We want to keep that going.’’
Game 4 is Monday in Portland, and the Blazers are already acknowledging it will be harder than Game 3.
They just delivered the most important 3:52 of their season. Now, another 48 minute mountain awaits.