Thunder faces a 'sharper' CJ McCollum than it did in the regular season
Damian Lillard immediately knew his backcourt counterpart, CJ McCollum, had an offensive rhythm going.
At least that’s what the Portland point guard said after beating the Thunder 114-94 Tuesday to take a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series. Plus, it was hard to miss.
McCollum’s first shot of the game came at the rim, after driving down the right wing. Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson blocked that route, so he retraced his steps and curled around a screen. That’s where Ferguson got stuck and Thunder center Steven Adams switched onto McCollum. With the mismatch he wanted, McCollum drove the lane and tossed in a layup.
“CJ’s been busting me,” Ferguson said after practice Thursday, explaining why he felt the need to contribute more.
During the regular season, Ferguson's defense on McCollum was a large part of OKC’s success in a four-game sweep of the Trail Blazers. In the playoffs, the 20-year-old Thunder guard has fouled too much, picking up three fouls before the third quarter was a minute old in both games. But more than that, McCollum showed the Thunder a side to him they hadn't yet seen.
“Playoffs is a different brand of basketball,” McCollum said Thursday. “The intensity is different. The attitude is different. The importance of it is different. I rise to the occasion for the playoffs.”
That isn’t to say McCollum wasn’t a factor against the Thunder in the regular season. Although OKC — largely with Ferguson guarding McCollum — held the Portland guard to just 10 points in their first meeting and 13 in their third, McCollum scored 31 and 25 points in two other games.
“He hit tough shots,” Ferguson said. “That’s the player he is. He’s an unbelievable player, and you’re not going to stop him every time. But just take away his confidence early. And I think we rely on our help defense a lot.”
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In four games against the Thunder in the regular season, McCollum averaged 19.8 points per game and shot 36.1 percent from 3-point range.
Respectable, but nothing close to what he’s done in two postseason games: 28.5 points and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Ferguson’s foul trouble has been part of the problem. McCollum described Ferguson as “just another defender,” but he isn’t. Ferguson guarded McCollum more than any other player did this season, facing him for 171 possessions, according to NBA.com.
But even when Ferguson did guard McCollum in Games 1 and 2, McCollum’s numbers soared. In the regular season, McCollum averaged 9.3 points in 42.8 possessions per game against Ferguson. In the postseason, that jumped to 12 points in about 13 fewer possessions per game.
“CJ is a tough cover to begin with,” Lillard said. “... Right now, we’re all they have to worry about, and they’re all we have to worry about. This could be it for both teams. You lock in more, you’re sharper, and I think CJ has just come into the series sharper.”
So Lillard kept giving him the ball.
McCollum, who missed 10 of the Trail Blazers' last 13 regular-season games due to a left knee strain, kept forcing switches and driving to the hole. Or draining 3-pointers when Lillard drew multiple defenders into the paint. Laying out a puzzle for the Thunder, down 0-2, to collectively solve.
If OKC doesn’t, to borrow a phrase from Lillard, this could be it.
"They haven’t won four yet," Ferguson said. "We’re still in this."
Game 3: Thunder vs. Trail Blazers
When: 8:30 p.m., Friday
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena
TV: ESPN (Cox 29 / HD 720, Dish 140, DirecTV 206, U-verse 602 / 1602); FS Oklahoma (Cox 37 / HD 722, Dish 412, DirecTV 675, U-verse 751 / 1751)
Radio: WWLS-AM 640 / 98.1 FM