When CJ McCollum takes the court against the Warriors on Thursday night, his every move will be monitored and then catalogued. The in-and-out dribble. The shoulder fake. The step-through and the step-back. The game itself will be broadcast live to a national audience, but McCollum’s best maneuvers will be clipped, packaged, and sent around the league, specifically to players who mean to steal from him.
Welcome to the basketball development complex, where the NBA’s copycat sensibilities extend to the most granular level. Over the years, McCollum has become a sort of teaching aid for coaches and trainers everywhere. Ask an up-and-coming guard who they watch on film and they’re almost sure to mention McCollum. Three years ago, Portland’s Seth Curry was among them—back when he had just signed with Dallas and was first establishing himself in the league. “I like his game,” Curry said then. “I think we're similar in the way we play at our own methodical pace and create shots...It's something I've always done just because I'm not gonna be the most athletic guy on the court, but I think I'm good at changing pace.”
Attainability is part of the appeal. McCollum is living proof that a 6'3" combo guard, with enough ingenuity, can create all the space he needs to be a high-level scorer. In this postseason, only eight other players have averaged more than McCollum’s 24.9 points per game. All—save for Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard—are significantly taller. Some draw from strength, or length, or incredible athleticism. McCollum finds his edge in variety and timing.
“I think that if you see my game, you'd feel like if you work hard, you could emulate it,” McCollum says. “Because of a lot of it is skill stuff. A lot of it is change of speed and things that you could actually work on and actually translate. It's not like I'm out here dunking on people like Zion. It's something that people feel like if they apply themselves, they could try to translate it.”
It’s a romantic idea. A player can rally in the thought that if they just spend enough time in the gym, they might be able to hone the deep assortment of moves and counters that make McCollum such a prolific scorer. The reality is never quite so simple, though it doesn’t have to be. Most guards don’t need to be high-level scorers. They just need one more way to attack—an answer when the opponent believes to have figured them out.
To this point, McCollum says, no other NBA players have hit him up directly to walk through specific moves. Instead, they simply watch and learn as he splits a pick-and-roll or slams on the brakes to ditch an aggressive defender.
“I work on my craft every day,” McCollum says. “I study it. I take this game very seriously and I do everything in my power to make sure I have a very, very creative arsenal of moves and weapons to pull out.” Smaller guards have a way of getting stuck; kill your dribble at the wrong time and rangy defense can overwhelm you. McCollum, however, is a brilliant and improbable escape artist. There is always some card yet to play, some pivot still to make. Just when the defense seems to be closing in around him, a well-placed feint will clear a way through.
“CJ does a lot of homework,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts says. “He watches a lot of video, and he has the ability to not only take that in, but think down the line to what he can do or what he should have done in a certain situation. I think that you've seen that over the course of his career in how he's been able to adjust within a game, or with one team versus another.” Or, in the case of this year’s playoffs: to adjust over the course of a seven-game series. The deeper Portland has gone into a series, the fewer mistakes McCollum has made. In a first-round bout with Oklahoma City, McCollum committed three turnovers a night in the first three games before halving that average (in extended minutes) over the last two, both closeout wins. McCollum started the second-round series against Denver playing a cleaner game, but somehow logged 87 minutes between Games 6 and 7 without committing a single turnover.
The Western Conference finals could demand a more accelerated learning curve. Golden State is painfully unforgiving; losing focus for even a few possessions can effectively end a game. “We need to be better,” McCollum says. “We need to be more efficient, take care of the ball. Take more advantage of our opportunities when we get 'em. I think people are making a big deal out of Steph hitting some open threes, but if you don't score, you're not gonna win against the Warriors. And if you don't defend and take care of the ball, you're not gonna win. So we've gotta tighten up those things as well.” Portland needs to adapt—and fast. Every passing day brings Kevin Durant closer to a return from injury. If the Blazers fail to win a game before Durant rejoins the lineup, the series will be as good as over.
What has kept Portland alive to this point is its collective ability to problem solve—to adapt both within games and between them. The defensive coverage that McCollum mentioned will likely have to change. Both Lillard and McCollum will need to tweak their approach in dealing with multiple defenders—an unavoidable reality given the way the Warriors have packed the paint thus far. There will be specific adjustments and more general remedies. To both ends, a player like McCollum is a relief. No matter how Golden State chooses to attack, there is always a counter. There is always a means of escape.