DENVER – At the most important time of the Trail Blazers’ season, CJ McCollum is struggling.
His shooting, in particular his three-pointers, is drastically off. He has had rashes of turnovers in key games. And in recent pressure-packed games, he has been notably absent.
To all of this, McCollum shrugs.
“I mean, you want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season but you can’t get caught up in the poor performances or the great performances,’’ McCollum said. “It comes with the territory. All you can do is just give it your best, prepare, watch film, and figure out ways to attack.’’
He is almost robotic in his response, void of emotion, and it is by design.
He lives by a state of mind called “apatheia,” a concept he adopted after reading a book he now often carries with him: “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday. Apatheia is described as “the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions.’’
Emotion, he has found, has no place in his game. Being upset that he went 4-for-15 and scored 8 points in the Blazers’ winning-streak-ending loss to Houston will not help. Pouting over his 3-for-19 and seven points in a key game at New Orleans will change nothing. And obsessing over his current 4-for-24 slump from three-point range might make it worse.
“Failing doesn’t scare me,’’ McCollum said. “Failing is part of succeeding, so I don’t get caught up in emotions and all that stuff.’’
This emotionless approach, which focuses more on preparation than results, can be traced to his youth, in Canton, Ohio.
As a sixth grader, McCollum stood at the free throw line in overtime with a chance to win the game.
He missed both free throws.
He cried – “oh, absolutely, I cried” -- and he remained distraught for days.
“It affected me. For a long time,’’ McCollum said.
It bothered him to lose, but more deeply, it tortured him that he was prepared for the moment, yet still failed. As a sixth grader, McCollum would make sure he would make 200 free throws a day.
“When I missed those game-winning free throws, that’s what changed my perception of everything,’’ he said from the Trail Blazers’ shootaround Monday in Denver.
In the coming months, through talks with his brother and parents, he would learn that basketball could be a cruel game. Sometimes, they implored, success was not always commensurate with the work put in.
Also, McCollum would soon come to subscribe to the notion that emotion had no place in the game.
Those days from his youth have formed what he is today for the Trail Blazers – a steely, emotionless shooting guard who spends more time worrying about preparation and analytics than his results.
“You have to live with the result when you put the work in,’’ McCollum says.
Most would think that work McCollum speaks of involves shooting. And lots of it. And they would be correct.
But that is only a sliver of the preparation McCollum puts in.
McCollum says he is hesitant to reveal his process, because it is his job to be prepared. But when he goes into the detail, it becomes more understandable why he speaks and reacts robotically more than emotionally.
He charts every shot he takes and if he misses, he notes whether it was long or short, or wide left or right. He also charts whether he shot with the seams of the ball or against the seams.
“I have on film my last 100 makes and misses,’’ McCollum said. “I can tell you why I missed, who was guarding me, and where I’ve taken every shot this season.’’
In the Blazers’ recent loss in Houston, when he went 7-for-25 from the field, including 2-for-9 from three-point range, it was almost as if he was back on the line in Canton as a sixth grader.
In re-telling the overtime free throw story, McCollum briefly sidetracked to that Houston game.
“It’s like when you work on certain things over and over. I work on floaters, pull ups … and in that Houston game, I missed five pull ups at the right elbow. Uncontested,’’ McCollum said. “I work on that stuff all the time, so when (misses) happen, I just shake my head and think that was crazy. Because I know how many reps I get from the elbows. How many step-backs I practice and make, both contested and uncontested.’’
At the end of the game, when he looked at his shooting line, he was stoic.
“I live with the result, man,’’ McCollum said. “I know who I am. I know what I can be out there. I have confidence in myself. I don’t get discouraged over a few poor shooting nights. I don’t get overly excited over a few great shooting nights.’’
For the season, McCollum is averaging 21.5 points while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from three-point range - all below his averages from last season.
"I haven’t shot the ball well, especially from three. Happens sometimes. I’ve gotten good looks,'' he says. "But I don't try to get caught up in it because it's such a long season. But the timing ... I have to live with the results.''
It’s not like McCollum has been totally absent over the Blazers’ push into third place in the Western Conference.
He was brilliant in the Blazers’ win at Oklahoma City, scoring 34 points, including a tough 18-footer - the game-sealing dagger -- with Russell Westbrook’s hand in his face.
It was after that game that Damian Lillard emphatically congratulated McCollum on the court, thumping McCollum’s chest and grabbing his head between his hands while relaying a message. Lillard said it was the most demonstrative he has ever been with McCollum on the court.
“It was a big game for us, a lot on the line … and he made big time shots – and I was telling him, that’s what good teams and top players do,’’ Lillard said. “The shots that he was making, not everybody can make those shots. And for us to be our best, we both have to be able to get stuff done. That’s what I was telling him: That’s how we have to get stuff done.’’
And when Lillard missed the game at Memphis to be in Portland for the birth of his son, McCollum tried to pick up the slack, scoring 42 points.
Now, the Blazers need him again.
Heading into tonight’s game at Denver, Portland (48-32) holds a one-game lead over Utah for third place with two games remaining. If the Blazers win one of their remaining two games, they earn home court advantage in the first round. If they win both games, they are the third seed. Lose both games, and they could drop to fifth and open the playoffs on the road.
In other words, this is no time for McCollum to disappear. After all, it was McCollum who said after his big performance against the Thunder “that’s why they pay me the big bucks” referring to his four-year, $106 million contract.
As the Trail Blazers’ shootaround wrapped up Monday in Denver and the players gathered their belongings, McCollum was just finishing up a rather rigorous shooting routine.
Breathing hard, he came to the sideline and tried to explain how he can remain so measured and calm amid an intense playoff race … all while slumping.
“Missed shots and poor performance isn’t because of a lack of preparation, I can assure you and the fans that,’’ McCollum said. “As a fan of players, and teams, I understand the frustration. However, it’s like studying for a test and failing. Sometimes, it happens. The best learn from it, improve upon it and press forward.’’
He again points to the Holiday book, “The Obstacle is the Way” as a guiding principle in dealing with problems. It is a discipline, McCollum recites, achieved in three different steps: Perception, which involves your attitude and approach to how you look at problems; Action which involves what you are willing to do to overcome the obstacle and turn it into opportunity; and Will, which is having the inner willpower to overcome.
When he heads to the Pepsi Center tonight, he says he doesn’t think if he will make or miss shots, but whether he has prepared adequately.
“It’s a long season, and sometimes it doesn’t go in,’’ McCollum said. “It’s unfortunate, and you want to help your team every night, but you have to be comfortable with who you are and understanding that sometimes, you aren’t going to play well. It’s not that you didn’t prepare, it’s just that you didn’t play well.’’
He also know through all his data – the shot charts, the shots with the seam and without the seam, the misses to the left and the misses to the right – that everything evens out. For every 3-for-19 shooting night, there is also a 10-for-15.
Will that big shooting night come in Denver? Against Utah? In the playoffs? Or all of the above? McCollum again shrugs.
“I go do my job. And sometimes it looks pretty sometimes it looks (crappy),’’ McCollum said. “I have to be able to accept that and I have to be able to accept criticism that I haven’t played well. I know it. I read the stats. In the game I shoot a shot and I’m like: dang, I’m supposed to make that.
“But for me, what am I gonna cry about it? Pout about it? What’s that going to do? It’s going to hurt the team,’’ he said.
So, he will shoot tonight in Denver and live with the results, while a fan base hopes for the sharp-shooting McCollum to return.
“No one’s expectations of me are higher than my own,’’ McCollum said.
And he has the data to prove it.