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CJ McCollum leads Portland comeback to beat Memphis, advance to playoffs

Portland just had too many weapons. Jusuf Nurkic was a problem in the first half (15 points and 17 rebounds before the break). Damian Lillard was his bubble MVP self, with 31 points and 10 assists.

But when the Trail Blazers needed buckets in the fourth quarter to come back on and then hold off the Grizzlies, it was CJ McCollum with some clutch late threes.

Throw in a dagger three from Carmelo Anthony and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Memphis Grizzlies 126-122 to take the play-in game and win this mini-series.

Portland will face the Lakers Tuesday night in the first game of their series. Memphis is headed home.

If the Grizzlies had won this game — and they came incredibly close behind 35 points and eight assists from Rookie of the Year to be Ja Morant — the two teams would have played Sunday in a second play-in game, and that one would have been winner-take-all.

“I was thinking I don’t want to play again tomorrow,” McCollum said when asked postgame what he was thinking with those key threes. “We had to get this done tonight, came out and make sure we finished them off.”

Before the game, Nurkic announced on Instagram that is grandmother, who lives in his native Bosnia, had died of COVID-19.

Nurkic came out with a heavy heart and put on a first-half clinic. Memphis went with the defensive strategy every team has used against Portland for years, trapping Lillard (and sometimes McCollum) out high, taking the ball out of their hands and daring anyone else to beat them. Nurkic did. He finished the game with 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting, plus he pulled down 21 rebounds.

Portland had pushed out to a 16-point first-quarter lead behind Nurkick, but Memphis bounced back in the second quarter when it attacked Anthony and Hassan Whiteside in the pick-and-roll.

Portland went under picks and gave Morant space to shoot in the first half and it worked, the rookie struggled to find his shot consistently or an offensive groove. In the second half he started using that space given him to attack and get rolling downhill, and the result was 24 points and 10 assists in the second half alone.

Portland also lost starting four Zach Collins for the second half due to ankle inflammation, which thrust rookie Wenyen Gabriel into a bigger role.

It was close late, and when Memphis switched its best perimeter defender (Dillon Brooks) onto McCollum, the Trail Blazers gave the ball to the bubble MVP. He didn’t just score, he made the right read — and Carmelo stuck the dagger in the Grizzlies’ playoff dreams.

Memphis may not have gotten the win, but they got big nights from three of their young stars: Morant, Brooks (20 points and some quality defense) and Brandon Clarke (20 points). That they pushed a seasoned, veteran team in a playoff setting bodes well for them next season and into the future.

Portland, finally healthy, looks like the 53-win team of a season ago that made the conference finals.

Getting past LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers in the first round may prove too big a mountain to climb, but this is a team better poised to do it than any of the other contenders for the eighth seed. Portland is not going to be a pushover, the Lakers are going to shoot better than they have in the bubble and be more focused to advance.

If the Lakers aren’t ready, we know what Lillard and company can do.