CJ McCollum has never been a Bull or a Timberwolf or a TimberBull, but I’d believe you if you told me he was raised in the church of Tom Thibodeau, where minutes restrictions are sacrilege and the second night of a back-to-back is no less sacred than the first. McCollum is made of the durable stuff. He’s played the third-most minutes in the league over the past four seasons, missing only six of a possible 315 games. So it was a shock on Saturday when the Blazers’ talented shooting guard fell after a drive to the basket against the Spurs, and a bigger shock when he stayed grounded. Later, McCollum described the injury the way one might describe the Blazers playing without him: “I just know that it’s not normal.”
The Blazers won’t be “normal” for at least another week, as McCollum, who was officially diagnosed with a popliteus strain, will be out until he is re-examined Sunday. A one-week absence usually isn’t something to get too concerned about, but the Blazers are in the middle of a tight Western Conference playoff race. As of Monday, Portland is in the fourth spot, 1.5 games behind Houston and a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City. Only 3.5 games separate third place from eighth (the Clippers). Some shuffling seems inevitable, especially for the Blazers, who won’t face all pushovers in McCollum’s absence: Between now and Sunday, they have Indiana, Dallas, and Detroit on the schedule.
McCollum’s diagnosis is a relief. The injury isn’t as severe as it seemed in the moment, when he had to be helped off the court by Skal Labissiere and Meyers Leonard. But Portland can’t afford minor inconveniences. Falling a seed would mean losing home-court advantage in the first round (as it stands now, the Blazers would host the Thunder). Falling two seeds would mean facing the Rockets, the team with the most to prove this postseason.
Portland has plenty of pressure to not be a first-round out after getting swept in the opening round of the playoffs the past two seasons. Each sweep brought a different panic: In 2017, the Warriors ousted the eighth-seeded Blazers on their way to a championship, leading fans to wonder whether this roster would ever be able to compete with the best of the best. And if the answer was no, why not blow it up? Then in 2018, the Pelicans embarrassed the third-seeded Blazers, leading fans to wonder whether this roster would ever be able to compete at all. And if the answer was no again, then seriously, why not blow it up? Cries to break up the backcourt were never louder than after last season’s upset. They’ll pick back up should Portland underperform again or, worse, performs to its maximum capability and loses anyway.
Like McCollum, Portland is always in the game. The franchise has gone to the playoffs five straight times, despite losing LaMarcus Aldridge and lighting all its cap space on fire along the way. But that isn’t worth too much in today’s NBA. The worst crime a front office can commit is not losing; in fact, that’s a proven strategy other franchises’ fans get behind. The worst crime is standing still. A week without McCollum won’t plunge the Blazers out of the playoffs or even drop them more than a couple of spots, but at this point there’s no such thing as a minor hiccup for the Blazers.