The Portland Trailblazers’ exit from the 2015 playoffs was inevitable. A patchwork of the blossoming team they were early in the regular season, the gauntlet of surviving the Western Conference playoffs became an impossibility. An autopsy on this Blazers season has yet to be performed, although the gashes inflicted by the Grizzlies have exposed a doubtful future of a franchise tentatively on the upswing in an oft-tortured basketball city.
Throughout the series, the Grizzlies were able to highlight every weakness and expose every sort of dysfunction of the Blazers, who were once a deserving 3-seed in the West before Wes Matthews went out for the season with a torn achilles. Defensively, the backcourt of Lillard/Afflalo/McCollum has offered little resistance, even as Mike Conley and Beno Udrih both played through injury, resulting with Nick Calathes shouldering nearly all of the burden late in the series. Courtney Lee and Vince Carter, normally spot up shooters, were cutting up the Portland lane dropping floaters and dunks with ease. Down low, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph punished the Blazers’ frontline – Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman were woefully ineffective on both sides, forcing Portland head coach Terry Stotts to go with the offense-first big man duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Meyers Leonard which consistently came up short defensively.
The battle on the block between Randolph and Aldridge – limbs flinging wildly, huge bodies hesitating and spinning, craftiness abounding – was a stout reminder of the Blazers’ dependence on their All-Star power forward, who is rumoured to be headed out of Portland with his free agency looming in the off-season. A slumping Damian Lillard forced the normally fluid and inspired Portland offense to become sticky and doughy. Aldridge ended up with 14 points on 18 attempts in 40 mins, following the series trend of forcing the offense through Aldridge who shot 33% on an average of 22 attempts, including a career high 32 attempts in game 2. (Compare that to the 31 attempts he put up in scoring a tidy 46 against Houston last year.)
For an uninspired offensive team, the sophomoric success of C.J. McCollum came on at (almost) the perfect time.
McCollum, a 6’4” combo guard, came into the NBA with the notorious legacy of having slayed Goliath. Leading his LeHigh Mountain Hawks to victory with 30 points against Duke in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, torching Duke’s Austin Rivers in the process, McCollum created a profile for himself in front of a national audience and may not have made it into the league otherwise. Drafted by Portland 10th overall in 2013, his fit on this Blazers squad was out of sorts as he wasn’t getting minutes, although he fit into the culture of the close-knit Portland squad. All three of these Portland guards (Lillard, Matthews and McCollum) have been similarly slighted in their careers, coming from mid-major schools and actively playing their way into respect and a place in the league. The Blazers had added Arron Afflalo during the season, displacing McCollum further away from the hardwood, but the Wes Matthews injury would create opportunity. Shortly after, Afflalo’s injury soon after created a desperate need. As he started to finally get minutes and real responsibility late in the season, McCollum sustained a consistent and efficient attack.
McCollum’s game is fast and tricky, relying on a great set of hesitation jukes and jabs to get his defender on his hip and into the lane. He can shoot, he can put it on the floor and he can get to the rim. Shades of his legendary Duke performance started to creep into Games 4 and 5, where McCollum scored 26 and 18 on an efficient 62% shooting and 67% from deep. The Blazers in turn relied on him even more in Game 5, deferring to his transition attack, consistent shot-up shooting and probing drives into the lane. In the third quarter, when the Portland offense became stagnant behind a struggling Lillard and Aldridge, he hit 4 of 5 threes and scoring 16 of of his career-high 33 points. Tony Allen was switched onto him and McCollum was still effective, this allowing Lillard some breathing room and the chance for him to attack the rim, which he (finally) did.
In Game 5, without McCollum, this last game of an up-and-down season could have been disastrous. Instead, he pushed the ball in transition punishing the Grizzlies for not getting back with momentum-killing threes on the break. He dared to come at a waiting Marc Gasol, driving hard and finishing soft at the rim, something Lillard and Afflalo had shied away from all series. The Blazers trusted McCollum in a moment of desperation and he delivered – it may have signaled the end of their current season, but remains a glimmer of hope for a franchise facing the flight of their star player in the off-season.
Injuries are the first bullet point on the list of reasons as to why this season came apart in the Rose City. Fighting through a torn ligament, LaMarcus Aldridge could not carry a team. The tangible and intangible worth of Wes Matthews skyrocketed as it became obvious that he was the key to the Blazers defensive identity, which was arguably the key to their early season success.
Doubt lingers in Ripcity. An uncertain future has always been a key component of Trailblazers basketball – no other franchise has fallen so fast, so hard and so often as Portland has. For Blazers fans that have been hemorrhaging hope for decades, this season was an opportunity to break that cycle. Success is fickle and fleeting in the NBA, but hope is eternal (until it runs out).