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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Trail Blazers like matchup with Hood, but must count on defensive help, too

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Zach Collins of the Trail Blazers blocks the path of Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic from the basket as Evan Turner looks to come help.DENVER — Unlike most of his teammates, Rodney Hood has played in a Game 7 before.

It was two years ago, and Hood was a member of the Utah Jazz, who lost Game 6 at home, then traveled to Staples Center to face the Los Angeles Clippers in a Game 7.

Utah won 96-92, with Hood coming off the bench to play a prominent role, scoring 16 points in 29 minutes as the Jazz wrapped up the NBA first-round playoff series in seven games.

"There's nothing like going into someone's building for a Game 7 and winning," Hood said after the Trail Blazers' Game 6 victory over Denver Thursday night at Moda Center forced a Game 7 at 12:30 p.m. PT Sunday at Pepsi Center. "That's a memory that will last a very long time."

Evan Turner is the only other Blazer with Game 7 experience.

Turner was a second-year player for Philadelphia when the 76ers lost to Boston in the seventh game of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. He started at shooting guard and collected six points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes.

In 2014, he was a member of the Indiana Pacers but did not play in the Pacers' 92-80 first-round Game 7 win over Atlanta.

For every other player on Portland's roster, Sunday will be a new experience. That includes Damian Lillard, who said having played in an elimination game — Thursday's win at Moda — will be of value.

"We were facing elimination tonight," Lillard said after Game 6. "The only thing that's going to change is it's going to be on the road.

"It's for our season. It's for all the marbles. I'm not going in there thinking, 'I've never been in a Game 7.' I'm going in there thinking, 'I know what this team is capable of. I know who I am as a player, and I'm going to go in there to get the job done.'"

Lillard did just that in Game 6, scoring a game-high 32 points. CJ McCollum added 30 and Hood a career playoff-high 25. It was the first time the Blazers have had three players score 25 or more in a playoff game since 1992, when Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and Danny Ainge all eclipsed that mark in the Western Conference semifinals against Phoenix.

Now the Blazers are on the precipice of their first Western Conference finals appearance since 2000 — the infamous series against the Los Angeles Lakers in which the "Jail Blazers" had the Lakers on the ropes, only to let them wriggle away from a 17-point deficit in Game 7.

That game was on the road. Oh, how the Blazers wish they had won one more of their four regular-season meetings with Denver, which would have given them the No. 2 seed in the West ahead of the Nuggets and home court advantage in this series.

A victory Sunday would propel the Blazers into a West finals matchup with an old adversary — Golden State, which beat Portland in the first round of the playoffs on its way to NBA championships in 2016 and '17. If there is a rematch, the first two games will be at Oracle Arena, with both games (Tuesday and Thursday) starting at 6 p.m.

The Blazers have won once at Pepsi Center in this year's series — in Game 2, a 97-90 victory in which the Nuggets displayed an atrocious shooting touch, firing at a .347 clip from the field while hitting 6 of 29 3-point attempts.

That's not likely to happen again, but it gives the Blazers confidence to know they've won there before.

The Nuggets are taking a dose of confidence from their Game 7 triumph against the Spurs after losing Game 6 at San Antonio in the first round.

"We've been here before," Denver coach Mike Malone said about playing a Game 7 at home. "Our Game 6 in Portland was better than in our Game 6 in San Antonio. Now we go back to the best home court advantage in the NBA. We're going to rely on that to try to close it out in Game 7."

I don't agree that Denver has the best home court advantage. I'd put Portland on a short list with Golden State, Utah and maybe Oklahoma City. But every home crowd gets loud come playoff time, and the Pepsi Center partisans will be at a feverish pitch on Sunday.

Neither team has shot well through the three previous playoff games in Denver. The Nuggets are shooting .442 from the field but only .317 from 3-point range. The Blazers are shooting .424 from the field — falling from .519 in the opener to .424 in Game 2 to .367 in Game 5 — and .326 from the 3-point line. Denver has a big advantage in rebounds (154-131) and offensive rebounds (40-29).

Hood is the X-factor for Portland, though he's under the radar no longer. The southpaw swing man — who averaged 3.0 points in the Oklahoma City series — is averaging 16.2 points while shooting .604 from the field and .579 from 3-point range in the West semis. He has scored at least 14 points in every game except Game 4, in which he scored seven points but inexplicably got only four shots in 24 minutes, making three.

Malone has used Torrey Craig, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Malik Beasley to defend Lillard and McCollum, often leaving 6-4 Jamal Murray to guard the 6-8 Hood when he's in the game. That's been like blood in the water to a shark for Hood, who has taken Murray to the post time and time again — or sunk 3's with great accuracy.

"This series, I got a matchup that I like," Hood told reporters after Game 6. "I'm really aggressive ... and can take some pressure off 'Dame' and CJ. We have one more game to get to the Western Conference finals, so we have to keep exploiting different things."

What's the matchup that he likes?

"Right now, I like all of them, to be honest," he said with a smile. "Once I get it going, I feel like I got it rolling."

A good answer. When pressed, however, he admitted he meant Murray, not a stopper even going against players his height.

"I'll continue to work out of the mid-post area," Hood said. "'Dame' and CJ are getting the bigger wings, so I'm good in the post, trying to find post-up opportunities."

It would be no surprise to see Malone change things up in Game 7, using Murray on Lillard or McCollum and employing the longer Craig or Barton to defend Hood.

"Rodney is a really big factor on their team right now," Denver center Nikola Jokic said. "He's making shots, and he's getting to the basket. He's a little bit taller than our guards, so he's using that to his advantage. Maybe we just need to be aggressive with him and don't let him pick us apart. He had a lot of wide-open shots."

Lillard knows how important the good Hood can be.

"CJ and I know the (defensive) attention we're going to get," he said. "(Opponents) are going to try to take us out, give us attention on pick-and-rolls and 'isos.' We know we're going to see bodies.

"When you've got another guy on the wing making 3's and posting up, it takes a lot of pressure off of us. There's not as much pressure to score or make something happen. We're going to need him like that in Game 7."

The 7-foot Jokic has been a monster for the Blazers to handle, averaging 26.8 points, 14.0 and 8.7 assists while shooting .546 from the field and .500 on 3-point attempts. Zach Collins — who collected 14 points, four rebounds and five blocked shots in 29 minutes off the bench in Game 6 — will likely draw more time defending the "Joker" on Sunday.

"Jokic is a great player," Collins said. "If you bring too much attention to him, he's going to pass it to a shooter. If you don't bring enough, he can score it himself. You have to make those catches tough, try to force him into help so he's not getting a free lane to the basket."

Likewise, the Nuggets know they need to do a better job guarding Portland's meal ticket, Lillard, than they did in Game 6.

"'Dame' looked really comfortable," Murray said after Game 6. "He wasn't comfortable (in Game 5), so we need to be tougher on him next game."

Expect the Nuggets to come out with increased defensive intensity.

"In our wins in the playoffs, our defense has carried us," Malone said.

Don't expect Stotts to insert Hood and Collins in the starting lineup for Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, who have been largely ineffective in the series. Stotts values their experience as starters over the past four seasons and doesn't want to disrupt the team's chemistry in such an important game. Expect Stotts to increase the minutes of Hood and Collins, though, especially if Harkless and/or Aminu aren't sharp.

The Nuggets hope the home crowd will give them an edge.

"We'll regroup like we did against San Antonio," Murray said. "Our fans are an advantage. We'll be ready to play."

"We'll always choose to play a Game 7 at home," Jokic said. "But the most important thing is who brings the energy to the floor."

It may just come down to which team makes more shots.

'It's going to be fun," Hood said. "It's going to be intense. I'm pretty sure their fans will be ready to rock. It's going to take a total team effort like it did in Game 6."

"(The Nuggets) have been comfortable for a lot of games in this series," Collins said. "(In Game 6) we made them a little uncomfortable. We have to continue that. It's going to be very difficult to go into their place and win, but we can do it."

Lillard was asked, as team leader, how he will counsel his teammates as they prepare for the biggest game for the franchise in 19 years.

"The No. 2 thing is to get rest," he said. "Stay off our feet, rest our bodies. The No. 1 thing is have our minds right. Don't overthink. We're going to play a basketball game. It's a big game, but we've won on their floor before, and we know what type of a mentality we had when we did that.

"We have to play for each other, play with each other on both ends. Put the pressure on (the Nuggets), make them earn everything on the offensive end, and make sure we value each possession. That has to be our mentality — be sharp, be physical. Be ready to go in there and take the game."

Before the playoffs began, I predicted that Portland would beat Denver in six games to advance to the West finals. Now, I'm saying the Blazers in seven.

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@kerryeggers


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