PORTLAND, Ore. -- As the Trail Blazers searched for a fourth-quarter spark Saturday night, CJ McCollum stepped to the free-throw line in an important spot.
The Blazers had just forced a turnover with 6:21 remaining in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, giving the career 83.9 percent free-throw shooter a chance to halt the Warriors’ second-half run and energize the Moda Center crowd.
After he was fouled on a 3-point attempt, McCollum made his first foul shot, but he missed the next two.
“I was locked in as could be, focused as I could be,” McCollum said after the Blazers’ 110-99 loss to the Warriors. “ … There’s no excuses. It’s on me.”
McCollum chased that second miss, and helped force a Warriors turnover. He found himself open in the right corner for a 3-pointer, but he missed that one, too. That shot could’ve cut Golden State’s lead to one. He missed all but one of five free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter, and four of six shots from the field.
McCollum didn’t say he was fatigued postgame, but those misses arguably represented the culmination of the Warriors’ relentless defensive pressure on him and fellow Blazers star Damian Lillard.
In all three games of the best-of-seven series, the Warriors have won by throwing wave after wave of defenders at Lillard and McCollum. They have blitzed both players on pick-and-rolls, and employed plenty of off-ball help when one of the two manages to get in isolation.
The result? Lillard and McCollum have shot a combined 35.2 percent from the field, and turned the ball over 22 times, and the Blazers now face elimination from the NBA playoffs.
“You know, you go up against a wall of defense, sometimes it’s three defenders,” Lillard said. “It’s tough because you’re not always going to get a quality look, and then when you do get a quality look and don’t make it, that just kind of makes it worse.”
Both Lillard (27.6 field-goal percentage) and McCollum (35.5 percent) have shot worse in the second half than the first over the course of the series. Lillard, who reportedly is playing through separated ribs, admitted that this series is “definitely tiring” even though he has felt “fine enough” to play 40 minutes a night.
After a grueling seven-game NBA playoff second-round series with the Denver Nuggets, Lillard and McCollum each have averaged more than 38 minutes per game against the Warriors. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are playing heavy minutes on the other side, but Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Golden State has made it a point to throw “fresh bodies in there” against the Blazers duo defensively.
Twelve Warriors saw the floor Saturday night, and Golden State won the war of attrition.
“We just want to try to wear guys down over the course of 48 minutes,” Green said. “It’s not necessarily that he’s going to start the game gassed, but if you can just wear him down over the course of 48 minutes, that makes those shots as the game goes on a little bit tougher.”
The Warriors have contained Lillard and McCollum so far, and they are one win away from their fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. Still, Golden State knows it can't afford to relent against the duo. Kerr noted the Warriors fouled the two on a few 3-point attempts, and Green said Lillard is liable to get hot at any time.
In other words, that pressure isn’t going away. The Blazers will have to solve it if they’re going to make this a series, let alone make history and come back to advance to the Finals.
“That’s what elite defenses do,” McCollum said. “They make it difficult on you and try to get the other guys to beat you.”