When you play on a team with Damian Lillard, there are always going to be questions about who should get shots in the clutch. Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum, despite being a gifted scorer in his own right, has faced those questions before, up to and including after he missed what would have been a game-winning shot in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies roughly two weeks ago at the Moda Center.
But McCollum swears he pays no mind to such second-guessing, and when you see the confidence with which he plays with, most would probably be inclined to believe him. And when you see him score 13 points in the fourth quarter of Portland’s 108-105 victory versus the Wizards in Washington DC Saturday night, a win that saw the Trail Blazers overcome a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit, even those who might have previously questioned his clutch bona fides have to think twice about their opinions.
“I might miss free throws every now and then but my body of work dating back to when I was in high school, I hit big shots and I miss them sometimes and I can live with that,” said McCollum after Saturday night’s victory. “I put a lot of work in, a lot of time.”
Seeing the time that McCollum spends in the gym working on his craft is one of the reasons why his teammates don’t harbor the same reservations as some of his detractors. They’ve seen the work he puts in during practice and the results he gets in games, so when the team needs a bucket in crunch time, they know McCollum is capable of delivering.
“I don't know how many times (McCollum) can impress even more,” said Nurkić. “But that's his job, to keep us there. When we give him the ball we trust in his hands.”
And that trust skyrockets when McCollum’s teammates recognize the way he moves on the court once he’s hit a couple shots in a row. While it can be difficult to describe exactly what an in-rhythm CJ McCollum looks like, it’s a vision that Portland’s players and coaches can recognize almost immediately. And when they do, they know it’s time to let him go to work.
“He got a wide open look at a three and it was a pure make, it was nothing but the bottom of the net,” said Lillard of when he knew his backcourt partner really had it going Saturday night. “He came back and he hit a tough floater… When he sees the ball go in and he's moving like he was moving, he'll make anything. There's no such thing as a bad shot at that point.”
Of course, Portland’s 17-point comeback in the fourth quarter wasn’t all McCollum’s doing. Both Nurkić, who had three blocks in the fourth quarter, and Pat Connaughton made important defensive plays while Lillard scored nine points on 2-of-4 shooting from the field and 5-of-5 shooting from the free throw line to help the Trail Blazers finally get over the top after so many previous runs fell just short. But while the comeback was the product of a team effort, it also proved once again that the Trail Blazers, and McCollum himself, are confident there’s more than one closer on the roster.
“I have all the confidence in the world and I can live with missing shots and I can live with people saying that I am not clutch because I know who I am,” said McCollum. “So it does not faze me.”