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Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum Help Keep Trail Blazers Alive

Down 80-70 with 8:48 left after a Jeff Green three-pointer, the prospect of a four-game sweep at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies was very real for the Portland Trail Blazers. Just under nine minutes to save the season. Just under nine minutes until LaMarcus Aldridge Watch kicked into high gear.

The Blazers dug deep over that last 8:48, and it was the young backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum who led Portland back to a 99-92 Game 4 victory on Monday night to stave off elimination. Lillard scored a game-high 32 points on 12-of-23 shooting, while McCollum added 18 points off the bench on a scorching hot 8-of-12 shooting.

Lillard and McCollum have bounced back in the last two games after a horrible start to the series. Lillard shot 10-of-37 combined in Games 1 and 2, but he was 21-of-40 in Games 3 and 4. Meanwhile, McCollum was 4-of-21 over the first two games and 16-of-26 over the last two.

The stellar shooting of Lillard and McCollum wasn’t enough in Game 3 because the Blazers’ defense was a sieve, but it was good enough in Game 4. Both players came up huge down the stretch, with Lillard pouring in 12 points in the fourth quarter, including a key four-point play. McCollum had several impressive drives to the bucket in the final frame, and he also hit a big shot from deep. McCollum’s three-pointer with 1:20 left gave him seven points for the fourth quarter and gave Portland a three-point lead, which was a lead they’d never relinquish.

Getting those performances from Lillard and McCollum was a must, because most of their teammates had another rough go of it. Aldridge had 18 points and 12 rebounds, but he shot a dismal 6-of-22 as he continues to be stymied by the Grizzlies’ excellent defense. The big man hasn’t shot over 40 percent in a single game this series.

Like Aldridge, Nicolas Batum had a double-double but really struggled from the field. Batum shot 3-of-13 overall and just 2-of-8 from three-point range, which was a key part of the Blazers’ 32.0 percent shooting mark from long range. Arron Afflalo added to those struggles by missing both of his threes and all five of his shot attempts, leaving a goose egg in the box score.

Luckily, in addition to Lillard and McCollum, Portland got the extra boost it needed from Meyers Leonard off the bench. On the same night former University of Illinois point guard Deron Williams went off, Leonard, another former Illini, had 13 points and 13 rebounds off the bench. Leonard stretched the Grizzlies’ defense out with his long-range shooting, as he went 3-of-3 from deep.

Leonard’s improvement into a prolific outside shooter has been an underappreciated story this year because of his inconsistent playing time. The 23-year-old actually posted a 50/40/90 shooting season, and he’s now 7-of-8 from three in this series. With Robin Lopez not offering all that much, Leonard provides a spark and a different dimension to the Blazers’ offense.

As for Memphis, the offense took a step back without Mike Conley in the lineup due to facial surgery. Conley’s replacements in Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih performed admirably enough by combining for 25 points (Calathes even hit four three-pointers), but the Grizzlies shot just 43.9 percent overall and didn’t have close to the offensive output as the first three games. Zach Randolph going 6-of-20 certainly didn’t help matters.

The good news for Memphis is that Game 5 is back at The Grindhouse. The bad news is that Conley’s status is unclear. If Conley is unable to go in Game 5, Lillard will once again look to take advantage of a favorable matchup. If Lillard and McCollum continue to play well and Aldridge can come up with a more efficient game, things could get real interesting in this series.

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