The full arsenal was on display early.
The shifty crossover into a soft floater, the hesitation into a pull three-pointer, and the smack talk.
Before Enes Kanter saved the game on the offensive glass, and before Damian Lillard rained down crucial three-pointers in the closing minutes, the Trail Blazers kept the Oklahoma City Thunder at arm’s length thanks to CJ McCollum.
And while his steady shot making carried the Blazers early, he made sure to get in some verbal jabs, too.
Early in the second quarter, Terrance Ferguson got into McCollum’s face at the free throw line and the two exchanged mini-shoves and nearly face-to-face words. But even after double technicals were issued, McCollum had more to say.
Thunder guard Dennis Schroder absorbed the brunt of the verbal onslaught. First, when McCollum beat him into the lane for a floater and then on the next possession when McCollum aced a step-back three-pointer.
A minute later, when McCollum got inside for a layup he was still giving any Thunder player that would listen a running commentary as he ran down the floor.
“Whatever it takes to get our team going,” said McCollum, who scored 20 of his 24 points in the first three quarters.
“It’s the playoffs, four games away from elimination. So for me, like I said before, we’re wearing white jerseys. I’m with the white team. That’s just how I am. I’m with the white team. So I ain’t got nothing to do with the other team. If you look at me crazy. If you say something to me, I’m going to say something back. But it’s all basketball, it’s all fun. I think that was just competed. It was clean basketball, we competed, we had fun.”
Few have had a closer look at McCollum the trash talker than his older brother, Errick, who says his younger brother has learned to pick his spots when to run his mouth and when to let his game do the talking.
“He doesn’t really talk a lot,” Errick says. “He’s more settled and reserved when he plays. But if you say one thing to him, challenge him or say anything slick to him he’s ready. Locked and loaded and won’t hold back. He feeds off that, it usually helps him take his game to another level.”
When he was younger, CJ didn’t always have the same tact, particularly as 5-foot-2 high school freshman playing on the varsity team. Back then, the younger McCollum ‘talked the most’ and wasn’t afraid to make big claims.
“Everyone always doubted him because he was so small and they would say the only reason he is on varsity or gets attention is because he was my younger brother,” Errick said. “And his response was always the same: ‘‘I’ll be a Division I player and I’ll play the the NBA. And one day you’re going to be begging the guy who you said ‘is not good enough and too small’ for a ticket to watch me play.”’
There were shades of the scrawny GlenOak High School freshman on the court Sunday afternoon. Not in stature, but certainly in demeanor. The ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ attitude that McCollum trotted out to the podium was readily apparent during his talkative second quarter performance.
It was an early sample of the heated exchanges most expected from this first round series. McCollum was just the unlikely poster child for that attitude in Game 1. There likely will be more bad blood and more high-tension jawing as the series continues.
Sunday’s game wasn’t decided by trash talking, or a second quarter scoring burst. But McCollum’s demeanor is representative of the Blazers’ larger attitude. After getting ushered out of the playoffs quickly in the past two postseasons, Portland isn’t going to go lightly. And like McCollum, they’ll pick their moments to let their opponent know about it.
The Blazers snapped their 10-game playoff losing streak on Sunday. There was perhaps some reason to crow postgame about a cathartic victory, but by the time McCollum made his way to the podium he might have already used up his most vicious barbs.
“It’s good to get a win at home. Our goal isn’t to win one game but we want to take advantage of this home-court advantage,” he said. “I think we played well, a lot of things that we can improve upon. I think last year was a good experience for us, we learned a lot of things from it. Now we know what it takes to win here at home and we’re up for the challenge.”