DENVER – “This is surreal.”
That was the statement heard around the Trail Blazers locker room as Meyers Leonard said it loud and proud knowing the Blazers are heading to the Western Conference Finals.
Down 17 points in the first half, Rodney Hood, the most consistent second unit player, goes out with an injury midway through the third quarter, starting the game 0-for-10 from three, and Damian Lillard scored zero points in the first quarter for just the second time in his playoff career, after hearing all of that wouldn’t you say that was “arguably the biggest win for the Blazers franchise in a long time?”
That’s exactly what Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said after his team fought back to take their series against the Denver Nuggets in Game 7, 100-96.
Coach Stotts’ big second half adjustment was starting Rodney Hood along with Zach Collins at the forward positions in the third quarter instead of Maurice Harkless and Al-Farqou Aminu.
But not even six minutes into the quarter, Hood went down with a left knee hyperextension and he did not return to the game.
Just as it has been all season long, a Trail Blazer player stepped up when called upon.
With Hood out, Evan Turner became Mr. Clutch on Sunday.
“You can’t really put into words how much [Evan] meant to us out there tonight, especially with Rodney going down, obviously we know how good Rodney has been this whole series and to see him go down was tough, but it speaks to the resiliency of this team,” Collins said.
Turner was the only bench player to score in double figures with 14 points on 3-of-7 shooting and unwavering 8-of-9 from the free throw line.
In true Evan Turner fashion, he told Trail Blazers radio immediately after the game, “not bad for an end of the bench scrub.”
Yes, counting on ET for good laugh while listening to his postgame comments is always a no-brainer.
In Game 7, the Blazers counted on him down the stretch.
Two of Turner’s eight free throws were made with 8.0 seconds remaining on the clock. Those two free throws iced the game.
“We just kept leaning on each other and tonight we had to lean on Evan a little more and he was more than up for that task, Collins said. “[He] made so many big plays at the end of the game – rebounding, making free throws, getting fouled, getting stops on defense, I mean, he was huge."
It was CJ McCollum who carried the Blazers for the entire game. McCollum finished with 37 points and nine rebounds in the win.
But as the Blazers said, it was a total team effort in Game 7.
Coach Stotts’ faith in Turner has never wavered.
“Evan quietly had a really good series. I know everybody kind of looks at his scoring, but our second unit was really good throughout this series, all seven games… His ability to guard Paul Millsap one-on-one in the post gave us the ability to space the court on offense and have him be a ball handler,” Stotts said.
“Evan has been in big games. Evan is a big-game player. He’s got a lot of confidence, he’s a team guy and kind of does whatever we need him to do,” Stotts added.
Turner attributes him staying cool under pressure to being in the league for nine years.
“Me being a pro, and me being in the league for so long,” Turner said. “[I’ve been] fortunate to be in these types of situations already throughout my career. I kind of knew that in pressure time, I’d be fine. That’s just how I’ve always been.”
When Turner knows he has to contribute on offense that’s when ET shines the brightest. Some might even say like a diamond.
“Pressure can bust pipes or make diamonds so we never thought we were going to lose,” Turner said.
The Trail Blazers are now heading to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years.
There’s no doubt the Blazers have built a special culture and in his postgame press conference, Damian Lillard mentioned how “it takes everybody” to build what they have built over the last few years.
“Everybody is invested in what we’ve created… It takes everybody to be all-in and that’s what it was tonight,” Lillard said.
That all-in mentality will now be heading to the Bay Area.