While the Portland Trail Blazers have had a tough time matching up against the stacked Golden State Warriors during their first-round series, one thing has become abundantly clear this postseason: CJ McCollum is a star. His strong series against Golden State is an exclamation point on his terrific 2016-17 campaign and he’s showing why he’s now considered one of the NBA’s best shooting guards.
McCollum is averaging 28 points per game, which ranks seventh among all postseason players and first among two-guards. He’s shooting the ball extremely well, hitting 61.1 percent of his three-pointers (first in the NBA, minimum 10 attempts) and 92.9 percent of his free-throw attempts (sixth in the NBA). He’s averaging .414 points per touch, which is third-best among players with at least 40 touches (trailing only Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant).
McCollum will say that his numbers don’t matter since Portland has been losing, but that’s not entirely true. He has been exceptional on the NBA’s biggest stage, even while facing the league’s second-best defense that allowed just 101.1 points per 100 possessions this season. The Blazers’ struggles are largely due to the team’s supporting cast and the Warriors just being loaded with talent. There’s not much more McCollum and Damian Lillard can do.
The Blazers currently have the postseason’s highest scoring backcourt, with McCollum and Lillard combining for 53.7 points per game. While it’s clear the guards need some more help, McCollum’s development is important for Portland going forward. Not only does it give the Blazers another elite offensive weapon, he makes things easier for Lillard too.
“It helps me because he’s another guard out there with the skill set to do the same things I can do – scoring, creating his own shot, creating for other guys,” Lillard told HoopsHype earlier this season. “He takes pressure off me because I don’t have all of that responsibility [solely] on me. We can share that responsibility. He can play at a high level. From day one, I always knew that he was capable of being this type of player, it was just a matter of how much opportunity he got.”
The guards have known each other since college and they have become close friends. While both players were extremely productive this year, McCollum believes they can keep improving and is excited about their untapped potential.
“I think we’re very comfortable together and the chemistry is there,” McCollum told HoopsHype earlier this season. “We’re continuing to learn since this is just our second full season starting alongside each other. I think we still have a lot of room to grow. I’m only 25 and Damian is only 26, so we haven’t hit our prime yet in terms of mental and physical strength and being able to slow the game down more as you’re seeing from some of the stars around the league who are in the 28-to-29 age range. I think we can get better all around; you’re never a finished product. The ceiling is definitely very high.”
Anyone who watched McCollum often during the regular season shouldn’t be surprised by his showing in the playoffs. After all, he averaged 23 points while shooting 48 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from three-point range and 91.2 percent from the free-throw line – all of which were career-highs. McCollum also chipped in 3.6 assists and 3.6 rebounds, and he finished the season with the NBA’s best free-throw percentage (91.2) and seventh-best three-point percentage (42.1).
To understand how the Blazers used McCollum, consider this: He led all players in distance traveled during the regular season, running 206.9 miles over 80 games. Head coach Terry Stotts asks a lot of him and he has delivered. He ran the equivalent of eight marathons over the past six months, yet he has elevated his game to another level this postseason. And he’s running 2.76 miles per playoff game, which is second-most in the NBA behind only Jimmy Butler (2.81 miles).
Last year was McCollum’s breakout season, as he earned the NBA’s Most Improved Player award after increasing his scoring average by 14 points and thriving in his first year as a starter. However, the huge strides he made this season were very impressive as well. It’s clear that McCollum is determined to keep finding ways to get better.
“Last summer, I wanted to improve all facets of my game,” McCollum said. “I wanted to continue to get more well-rounded, get stronger, work on my lower body so that I could finish games better and be more efficient in the fourth quarter, and figure out ways to manipulate pick-and-rolls offensively and defensively. I kept my workout schedule pretty consistent. It was similar to the year before. In the mornings, I lifted and got my hot yoga in – or something similar – to work on my core. Then, I did on-court work. That’s when I’d work on specific stuff like shooting, shooting off the dribble, conditioning, ball-handling, defensive stuff where I’m sliding and working on angles, working on guarding the post, working on closeouts. It was a combination of a lot of things all summer.
“I think you have to be confident in yourself and trust your preparation and work ethic. I think over the course of the last couple years, I’ve gotten better. I’ve continued to work on my game and I think when you’re confident in yourself and you work hard, you’re going to have success at some point. Then, it’s just a matter of believing yourself. I’ve always believed in myself, regardless of the circumstances. I felt like my hard work was going to translate [to success] and I think it’s done that. Now, it’s just about continuing to get better, continuing to find ways to improve as a basketball player so I can help our team win.”
When Portland struggled this season, McCollum stressed that the Blazers must execute better late in games, be more efficient, make the right decisions on offense and protect their home court. After dropping three straight games to the Warriors, the Blazers must do those things in Game 4 in order to keep their season alive. Golden State is without head coach Steve Kerr while Kevin Durant, Shaun Livingston and Matt Barnes are all questionable, which may make the task a bit easier for the Blazers.
Regardless of what happens, McCollum is a big believer in postseason experience helping a team grow. He believes there a lot of lessons you can take away from the playoffs – win or lose.
“There’s nothing like postseason experience. Playing in those games, going on the road into a hostile environment and competing against a very good team, you learn a lot,” McCollum said earlier this season. “Last year, we went against a very good Clippers team that, while decimated by injuries, had a lot of veterans that could play at an elite level. Then we faced the defending champion [Warriors], who went to the Finals again. Going through that – losing close games, winning close games – you gain experience, build camaraderie, and get an understanding of what it takes to succeed in those tough games and tough situations.”
Those lessons, coupled with a ton of work behind the scenes, have allowed McCollum to develop into an elite player in just his second year as a starter. It remains to be seen how much more room for growth McCollum, Lillard and other Blazers have, but there’s reason for optimism in Portland.