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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Portland wins, forces Game 7 on Sunday at Denver for spot in NBA Western Conference finals

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Rodney Hood of the Trail Blazers goes up over Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray on the way to 25 points.
And then there was one.

One game, winner take all.

That's coming Sunday when the Trail Blazers visit Denver with their first trip to the NBA Western Conference finals in 19 years on the line.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 62 points, Rodney Hood pitched in a career playoff-high 25 points and Portland staved off elimination with a 119-108 victory over Denver on Thursday night at Moda Center.

Now it's on to Sunday's Game 7, with the series tied 3-3 and a date with either Golden State or Houston on the line.

"It's just another game — another game we want to win," said McCollum, who scored 30 points. "We understand what's at stake. Somebody's got to go to Cabo or Cancun, as Chuck (Barkley) would say."

That's a fitting consolation prize for a bunch of millionaires. But any of the Blazers would be thrilled to put off vacation for a few more weeks.

Lillard, held in check by Denver's pressuring, sagging defense since posting 39 points in the series opener, bombed in 17 of his game-high 32 points in the third quarter Thursday night. A couple of those were long-range Scud missiles, reminiscent of the Oklahoma City series but previously missing in this series.

"That was the aggressive 'Dame,'" Denver coach Mike Malone said. "You saw that in all five games in the first round against Oklahoma City. We've done a pretty good job of guarding him. Tonight, with their backs against the wall, you knew what you were going to get. He did a hell of a job."

Through the first five games against the Nuggets, Lillard was shooting .429 from the field and had hit only 9 of 35 attempts from the 3-point line. On Thursday, he was 11 for 23 from the field and 6 for 13 on 3-point attempts, the latter figure including a 75-foot howitzer that bounced squarely off the rim at the end of the third quarter.

"Sometimes as a shooter, the shots just don't fall, and you start trying to make shots a little bit too hard," Lillard said afterward. "Maybe you take a few tough ones, and that makes it a longer night. Since Game 1, I haven't seen the ball go in consistently enough. But my job is to stay aggressive, keep doing what I do. Tonight, shots fell."

At first, they didn't. Lillard and McCollum combined for 0-for-5 shooting as the Blazers fell into a 24-14 hole. Denver led 34-26 after one quarter, but Portland turned things around in the second quarter, outscoring the Nuggets 32-20 to take a 58-54 lead into intermission. Denver, 11 for 18 from the field in the first quarter, was 8 for 28 in the second period.

"We got off to a really good start," Malone said. "I liked our first quarter. The second quarter was the deciding quarter, a pivotal 12 minutes.

"We had a good vibe going at both ends. We were somewhat in control of the game, so you like where you're headed. But it was that second quarter that got things turned around very quick."

The Nuggets never quit. They rallied to take a one-point lead twice in the third quarter and were down only four early in the final period. But the Blazers were the sharper, better-shooting, more efficient team in this one.

"We got behind the 8-ball a little bit early, but I liked the way we responded," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "And after we got the lead, I liked the way we sustained it."

The Blazers shot well from the field (.461), superbly from 3-point range (.455) and maintained a near-standoff on the boards (Denver winning 44-43) after losing the backboard battle 62-44 in Game 5.

Portland's bench outscored its Denver counterparts 42-13, with Hood and Zach Collins leading the way. Hood made 8 of 12 shots — including 3 for 4 on 3-pointers — in a spectacular 32-minute performance.

"He was the MVP of the game," Malone said. "You can't speak enough about Rodney Hood, the impact he has had the whole series. He averaged three points a game in the first round. Talk about a young man stepping up and taking advantage of a situation in an elimination game."

Hood is Portland's No. 3 scorer in the series at 16.2 points per game, shooting .504 from the field, .579 from beyond the arce.

"He has probably been our most consistent player in the series," Lillard said. "All six games, he has been productive."

Hood, acquired by the Blazers in February, had a disappointing season with Cleveland last season. There was his refusal to enter late in a game in the Eastern Conference finals — he later apologized. He then averaged 5.2 points off the bench as the Cavaliers were swept by Golden State in the NBA Finals.

"It was a dark moment for me," the Meridian, Mississippi, native said Thursday night. "But things flip around. I worked hard to make sure things turned around. I hope everybody back in Mississippi is smiling right now."

Collins contributed 14 points, four rebounds and five blocked shots in 29 stellar minutes — the most he has played in any game through the regular season or postseason — while defending Nikola Jokic ably during his time matched up with Denver's franchise player.

"Rodney and Zach were great," McCollum said. "They've been killing the whole series."

Hood and Collins took minutes away from starting forwards Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, who have been ineffective through most of the playoffs.

"Actually, it was a pretty easy decision," Stotts said. "The impact Rodney had in the first half was clear. Zach had the same impact in both halves defensively. That group was doing well, and I didn't want to screw it up."

Stotts also liked the performance of swing man Evan Turner, who played 19 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter. Turner — who has scored seven points in Portland's 11 playoff games — went scoreless but chipped in seven rebounds and seven assists.

"Evan was terrific," Stotts said. "He does a good job guarding (Paul) Millsap and as a playmaker. He really impacted the game without taking a shot."

Jokic got his numbers — 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in 37 minutes — but Millsap and Jamal Murray struggled with their shot for the Nuggets. Millsap had 17 points and six rebounds but was 4 for 15 from the field. Murray finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and five assists but made only 7 of 20 shots. Denver shot .384 from the field, albeit 30 for 32 (.938) from the foul line.

Malone was more concerned with Portland's offensive numbers.

"It's pretty black and white," he said. "Got to play better defense. That's the bottom line. They scored 119 points, made 15 3's. That, coupled with our inability to make shots ... we had 46 shots in the paint and made 16."

Malone said he wasn't surprised by Lillard's offensive output.

"You know what kind of mind-set a great player is going to come out with, coupled with us not getting up to take away the 3-point shot like we've done," he said. "Tonight, he got off. It was a combination of him understanding what time it is, and us not being as engaged defensively as we need to be."

The Moda Center sellout throng of 20,022 rocked the house, especially as the Blazers seized, then maintained control in the second half. In the fourth quarter, injured center Jusuf Nurkic — out for the playoffs following leg surgery — turned to Lillard on the Blazers bench.

"Nurk said, 'Man, I wish I could go out there and play with my broken leg. I would go out there and play right now and get hurt again if I could,'" Lillard said, smiling.

"I was like, 'Man, that dude is crazy.'"

Lillard said he was energized by the home crowd.

"Sometimes in the huddle, Coach (Stotts) tells us to give our crowd something to get behind, because we know we have a great home court," he said. "We know our fans get into the game, how much they care. When we're on a run, you're not going to kill them in the third quarter, but you can get that crowd going.

"A few times tonight I looked up to a three-, four-, five-point lead. And I'm going to raise up, and (hit a 3), and it's going to be 8. Make them call a timeout and get our crowd behind us. I know how it feels being on the other side — the visiting team leading and the crowd going crazy."

Lillard could find that out again Sunday during Game 7 at Pepsi Center. One game for "all the marbles," as he puts it. The fans will be rooting for the other team in that one.

What a game that should be.

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