Portland Trail Blazers

Eight observations: CJ McCollum takes over down the stretch to lead Portland Trail Blazers over Memphis Grizzlies

The playoffs are set.

On Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA's first-ever play-in tournament to secure the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard scored 31 points and dished out 10 assists to lead the Blazers while CJ McCollum contributed with 29 points and Jusuf Nurkic recorded a 22-point, 21-rebound double-double.

For more on the game, here are some quick reactions...

1. Once a Grizzly, always a Grizzly

According to Ben Golliver of The Washington Post, Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol was in the building to watch his former team take on the Blazers.

It's safe to say the Grizzlies will always hold a place in Gasol's heart.

2. Damian Lillard's stepback is automatic


According to NBA.com, Lillard attempted 115 stepback 3s during the regular season. His success rate on those shots? 50.4 percent.

Lillard didn't take as many step back 3s as James Harden and Luka Doncic - Harden attempted 517 compared to 273 for Doncic - but he was way ahead of both of them efficiency-wise.

It's ridiculous how smooth Lillard is.

3. Mario Hezonja is a shot blocker now

OK, not quite - Hezonja had a total of nine blocks during the regular season - but this is special:

4. When in doubt, slow it down

The Blazers got off to a strong start in this one, leading 31-19 after the first quarter.

Want to know what got the Grizzlies back in the game? Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas pick-and-rolls.

Anderson isn't much of a scorer - he averaged 0.8 points per game as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls during the regular season - but he ran circles around Hassan Whiteside in the second quarter, getting him up in the air with shot fakes before dumping it off to Valanciunas for uncontested baskets.

This one in particular was a beauty:

Anderson had four assists in the second quarter alone, all of which went to Valanciunas. It helped Valanciunas have a big quarter, as was responsible for 14 of the team's 33 points.

Speaking of big men...

5. The first half belonged to Jusuf Nurkic

As good as Valanciunas was in the first half, Nurkic was even better.

Through two quarters of play, Nurkic led the Blazers with 15 points, 17 rebounds and two assists. He had his jumper working, knocking down a couple of 3s as well as a midrange jumper, and he punished the Grizzlies for loading up on Lillard on a couple of occasions with hard rolls to the basket.

It helped offset Valanciunas' big quarter and got Portland's offence back on track.

Not enough has been made of how good Nurkic has been in the bubble. He was a borderline All-Star last season, but to be doing the things that he is coming off of a season-ending leg injury? Incredible. He adds a different dimension to the Blazers with the pressure he puts on teams at the basket and his passing.

The fact that Nurkic had the best plus-minus on the Blazers speaks to the impact he was able to make in this game.

6. Lillard will put you on a poster too

Don't sleep on Lillard's hops.

Goodness gracious.

7. Ja Morant is special

You wouldn't know Morant is a rookie based on how he played in this game.

Morant had a quiet first half, with the Blazers holding him to 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting from the field. How did he respond in the second half? By shrugging it off and attacking the Blazers relentlessly.

He wasn't perfect - Morant coughed the ball up a total of eight times in the game - but he kept his foot on the gas with the Grizzlies' season on the line, punishing the Blazers with his speed and athleticism...

...while striking the right balance between looking for his own shot and setting up his teammates for open looks when Portland collapsed on his drives.

Morant finished the game with 35 points, making for the highest scoring game of his career thus far. He also dished out eight assists and grabbed four rebounds.

Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, it just wasn't quite enough to force a second play-in game.

8. CJ McCollum saves the day

It was McCollum, not Lillard, who took over down the stretch for the Blazers.

Trailing 111-108 with 3:21 to go, McCollum hit three huge shots to tie the game and help the Blazers pull away.

First, there was this stepback 3-pointer over Morant:

Then there was this stepback 3-pointer over Morant following an And-1 from Nurkic:

Followed by this - you guessed it - stepback jumper over Morant:

And with a fracture in his back? Yeesh.

Having McCollum as a No. 2 is quite a luxury.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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