In a back-and-forth Game 7 that mirrored this highly competitive second-round series, McCollum buried midrange jumpers from near the left side of the free throw line all game, chased down Jamal Murray for a LeBron James-like series-saving block and delivered the dagger that helped the Portland Trail Blazers break through a 19-year wall. For the first time since 2000, the Blazers are heading to the Western Conference finals, and they did so by completing the largest comeback in a Game 7 in the past 20 years.
McCollum orchestrated the comeback with 37 points, nine rebounds and the block on Murray to help Portland advance with a 100-96 victory over the Nuggets. The Blazers overcame a 39-22 deficit with 7:26 remaining in the second quarter, the largest deficit erased in a Game 7 since the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, came back from 16 down against Portland in the 2000 conference finals.
The Trail Blazers have been eliminated in the first or second round in their past 11 postseasons. But McCollum didn't need that for motivation to lift his team to a showdown with the Golden State Warriors.
"Honestly, I got enough motivation," he told ESPN's Doris Burke after the win. "I got it out the mud. I went to Lehigh University. You know what I'm saying? No one has ever been drafted there, so for me, it's about showing what I can do every night and keeping the door open for the next mid-major. I'm tired."
McCollum ended the Nuggets' best season in a decade by going 17-for-29 and doing almost all his damage from inside the 3-point line. On a day when Damian Lillard struggled through 3-for-17 shooting, McCollum was too much for the Nuggets to handle.
After Denver's cushion disappeared, the Nuggets were within four when Murray took an outlet pass and flew toward the basket. After avoiding Seth Curry, Murray appeared to have a layup, only to have McCollum erase it from behind with 4:44 to go, halting any momentum the Nuggets were creating.
"I just went and got it, Bron-style," said McCollum, who like James grew up outside of Cleveland. "Shout-out to my guy Bron from the 330. It was mini version of LeBron's block on [Andre Iguodala]. Definitely didn't get up as high, but it was a cool play. It's something I'll remember. I might have to get a picture of that one."
McCollum followed that by drilling three midrange jumpers in the final 2:57 to deny the Nuggets any chance to overcome the deficit. When Denver got within one, McCollum answered with a 16-foot pull-up with 1:25 remaining. After winding the clock down, McCollum was isolated on Torrey Craig before he got to his spot on the left side of the free throw line and buried a 16-foot jumper with 12.4 seconds left to give the Blazers a 98-95 lead.
"CJ was phenomenal tonight," said Denver coach Michael Malone, whose team won 54 games and finished second in the Western Conference in the regular season. "And all summer long, I'm going to be probably second-guessing myself. Out of a timeout, they just go 1-4 flat, and he hits a tough pull-up, and that's a shot he makes consistently. And Torrey played good defense, as good of defense you can ask somebody to play one-on-one.
"But right after, I'm saying, we should've sent somebody at him. He's having a great game, and make somebody else have to make a play or make a shot."
Afterward, the Blazers could be heard celebrating in the visitors locker room. They're one series away from their first NBA Finals trip since the Clyde Drexler-led Blazers faced the Chicago Bulls in 1991-92, and they did it without Jusuf Nurkic (out for the season with a leg injury) and after losing Rodney Hood (hyperextended knee) in the third quarter of this Game 7.
"Obviously, we had the roster turnover four years ago, and everybody was quick to shoot us down," Lillard said. "You know, count us out, and at that point, we didn't know for sure what direction we were going to go in. We definitely leaned on the culture we wanted to create -- doing things the right way, working hard, being about each other. You know, not being about one guy, two guys. You know, I think we really built that up from the jump."
"You know, everybody's excited because we all play a part in it," he added. "You know, you just don't create this type of thing with just the players. It takes everybody to be all-in. That's what it was tonight."