BC-BKN--Trail Blazers-Nuggets,1st Ld-Writethru
DENVER (AP) — CJ McCollum scored 37 points and the Portland Trail Blazers overcame a 17-point first-half deficit to beat the Denver Nuggets 100-96 on Sunday to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000.
Evan Turner, who scored just four points in the first six games of the series, added 14 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter. The Trail Blazers advanced to face the two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, beginning Tuesday night in Oakland, California.
Turner corralled the rebound when Nikola Jokic’s desperation 3-pointer hit the rim and dribbled out the clock, sending the stunned crowd streaming to the exits at the Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets owned the best record in the league during the regular season but where they lost twice to Portland in the series.
The Nuggets raced to a 39-22 lead and Game 7 was beginning to look a lot like Game 5, when Denver blew out Portland by 26 points in this building. But Blazers coach Terry Stotts called a timeout with 7:26 left in the second quarter and his team began chipping away.
“There wasn’t going to be any quit,” Stotts said. “I didn’t think they ever stopped believing. ... It was just about regrouping.”
The Blazers were down 48-39 at halftime and trailed by just a point head into the fourth quarter.
That’s when the Nuggets’ hopes of reaching their first Western Conference Finals in a decade died with a 7-of-24 shooting performance, including 3 of 10 from Jokic, who tearfully blamed himself in the locker room for the loss.
Nonsense, said his coach, Michael Malone, who said Jokic proved to the world in these last 14 playoff games that he’s the best big man in basketball and he only petered out at the end because the Nuggets had to rely so heavily on their 7-foot All-Star.
It was a devastating end to Denver’s season after the Nuggets ended a six-year playoff drought and earned the second seed in the Western Conference bracket.
“I’m not going to allow Game 7 loss to take away from a magical year,” Malone said, “and it doesn’t feel that way right now but when I reflect, and when our players reflect, on what we were able to accomplish — hell of a year, couldn’t ask for anything more from our guys.”
McCollum, who had 30 points in Portland’s Game 6 victory, came up big on a night Damian Lillard made just 3 of 17 shots for 13 points. But two of those buckets were crucial 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.
The first one gave Portland an 81-76 lead and the second one made it 92-85 and followed Lillard’s steal of Jokic’s outlet pass.
Jokic led Denver with 29 points, but missed 15 shots. Jamal Murray had 14 points, but was 4 of 18 from the floor.
Rodney Hood, whom Malone said he was most worried about heading into Game 7, injured his left knee in the third quarter and left the game. Hood was cleanly screened by Torrey Craig when none of his teammates warned him and crumpled at midcourt while Craig broke free for the basket that gave Denver a 60-55 lead.
Before the game, Malone said that while Lillard is the superstar and McCollum an emerging All-Star, Hood concerned him the most after scoring 7 points in the fourth overtime of Game 3 and 25 off the bench in Game 5, both Portland victories. Hood finished with 6 points and 3 boards.
Portland: The Blazers didn’t manage back-to-back buckets until McCollum hit two straight baskets to pull Portland to 39-26.
Denver: The Nuggets were 2 of 19 from beyond the arc and missed 11 free throws. Portland was 4 of 26 on 3-pointers and 20 of 24 from the stripe.
The Trial Blazers visit Golden State for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday night.
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