The Trail Blazers desperately needed him and CJ McCollum delivered.
He’s done it before, and on much grander stages, but on Sunday night at the Moda Center with his team staring down an ugly loss McCollum put together his best performance season to keep Portland’s playoff aspirations alive.
“He led us,” Carmelo Anthony said. “He led us tonight. He came up big when we needed it, made the right plays. His shot was falling tonight. He put us on his back.”
McCollum scored 41 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and dished out career-high 12 assists, pulling the Blazers back from what would have been a sobering loss to the Detroit Pistons. He played the entire second half, and committed just one turnover despite commanding nearly all of the playmaking duties in his 43 minutes on the court.
Beating a 19-40 Pistons team at home after surrendering a 19-point lead might not land too high on McCollum’s resume, one that includes some monster postseason performances and a Game 7 game-winner on the road last April. But a loss on Sunday would’ve pushed the Blazers' already dicey playoff hopes to the brink. So McCollum came to the rescue again, only this time playing a decidedly different role.
Damian Lillard missed his second straight game against Detroit, which thrust McCollum into lead guard duties away from his comfort zone as a high-scoring second option. For the second straight game without his backcourt partner running the show, McCollum struck an impressive balance between facilitator and his more typical fearless shotmaker.
In two games with Lillard out of the lineup, McCollum is averaging 34.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 11.0 assists. He says he welcomes the added responsibility.
“I’m ready for whatever honestly. I’ve always felt like that,” McCollum said. “I work extremely hard on my game. I watch film. I adjust to the situation. I know how to play as the No. 2. I know how to play as other roles. I know how to play as a No. 1. Obviously right now we’re missing 30 points, eight assists, six rebounds. I can’t do it all by myself. I have to have help. I have to empower guys. I have to put people in a position to succeed, and take advantage of everybody’s skill sets, and still play at a certain level individually. I’m fully capable of that. I have all the confidence in the world in this team and myself because I know how much the game means to us.”
The knock on McCollum’s game is that it lacks variety. He can score with a dazzlingly array of dribble moves and counters but on most nights that’s the end of the story. However, McCollum has shouldered his Lillard-less responsibility admirably and he’s filled out the stat sheet in the process.
The Blazers have aided McCollum’s shift in roles. Terry Stotts is calling more plays from the bench than he does when Lillard is commanding the offense, and Lillard has been in McCollum’s ear regularly offering encouragement along with Xs and Os advice.
“He knows my demeanor,” McCollum said, explaining how Lillard has tried to help while sidelined with a groin injury. “He’ll tell you that I don’t lack confidence ever -- regardless of what’s happening. He’s just like, ‘Stay aggressive. When you need to keep the ball, keep the ball. When you need to make plays, make plays early. And then when it’s go time, go.’”
In the fourth quarter Sunday it was time to go. McCollum went.
He scored 16 of 41 points in the final frame making 5 of 11 shots and working a two-man game with Anthony to guide the Blazers to a crucial comeback win. The scoring was familiar, the table setting was a necessary added wrinkle.
In the locker room afterwards, Trevor Ariza asked McCollum what his career-high was, and McCollum explained he had scored 50 in three quarters against the Bulls a couple season ago.
“I got hot,” McCollum told his new teammate.
“Stay hot,” Ariza instructed him.
To hear McCollum tell it that’s exactly what he plans to do.
“I think I’m built for the long haul,” he said. “Historically I’ve played well in the playoffs. I’ve played well down the stretch of games. Understanding there has to be a sense of urgency. We haven’t played well this entire season and for us to have a chance to make the playoffs I have to be elite, and I’ll do that.”