Zach Collins raises Portland's hopes for Game 7 and a brighter future

Rodney Hood has been the star of the Portland Trail Blazers' bench in this beautiful, exhausting, exhilarating battle against the Denver Nuggets, and he deserves all the public fawning.

He's averaging 16 points on 60 percent (!) shooting, and brutalizing whichever undersized guard the Nuggets throw at him -- to the point that Denver for one stretch of Game 6 slid Paul Millsap onto Hood, and a smaller wing onto Evan Turner. The Nuggets might want to try that again in Game 7.

Hood is beasting in the post. He is averaging 1.37 points per isolation in the postseason, second behind Marcus Morris among players who have recorded at least 15 such plays, per Second Spectrum. He has proven up to the challenge of defending Jamal Murray.

Swapping Hood for one of Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu -- 7-of-30 combined from deep in this series -- has upped Portland's shooting quotient without compromising its defense. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, dealing with traps at every turn, have more space to breathe with Hood on the floor. He has punished Denver for creeping away to help on Portland's central pick-and-roll action:

It has been a wonderful story. Hood quaked under the pressure of replacing Gordon Hayward in Utah, and disintegrated playing with LeBron James in Cleveland on the game's biggest stages. He has rediscovered his game, and his confidence, amid Portland's healthy culture. With one of Lillard and McCollum always on the floor, Hood can focus on what comes naturally to him (scoring) instead of what has always seemed a little outside his wheelhouse (running an offense).

Neil Olshey, Portland's general manager, grabbing Hood for Wade Baldwin, Nik Stauskas, and two future second-round picks on the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday -- four days before the trade deadline -- barely registered, but the Blazers would not be playing in Game 7 without that deal.

Hood has had some bench help in the form of a reserve with much more long-term importance to Portland: Zach Collins, the edgy and roaring big man who has spent time at both power forward and center against Denver, and thrived in both roles. Olshey traded the 15th and 20th picks (Justin Jackson and Harry Giles III) in the 2017 draft to Sacramento to move up and select Collins with the 10th pick.

Some insiders dubbed the move a reach -- some dub any splashy draft-day move for a big man a reach as the league evolves toward guards and wings -- and Donovan Mitchell indeed went three spots later. But the Blazers had no pressing need for Mitchell with Lillard and McCollum on board. Portland bet Collins would mesh with their star guards before they exited their primes, and that bet is starting to pay off.

The Blazers have outscored Denver by 22 points in 113 minutes with Hood and Collins on the floor, per NBA.com. They have played together mostly in bench-and-McCollum lineups that have generally won the starts of second and fourth quarters. Denver has countered with lineups featuring Millsap as the lone starter, but those groups have been a disaster despite Millsap's best "adult in the room" efforts.

Turner, working as a small-ball power forward, has battled Millsap in the post since Game 4 after Millsap bullied him in the earlier part of the series. Collins took the Millsap assignment for a couple of possessions in Game 6, leaving Turner to guard Mason Plumlee; the Blazers might want to revisit that setup if Millsap gets into a Game 7 groove. Denver dumping the ball to Plumlee in the post against Turner is a win for the Blazers. Small children should avert their eyes during Plumlee's laborious post-ups.

One of these teams has only 48 minutes left in its season. Those bench-on-bench clashes become even more fraught Sunday. Expect both coaches to treat them with more urgency. Murray started the fourth quarter of Game 6 alongside Millsap -- a second starter to bolster the bench mob -- and Michael Malone might want to have one of Murray and Gary Harris (stout all series) on the floor at all times in a do-or-die game.

Malone will surely stretch Nikola Jokic as far as he can go, and he has already gone a preposterous 65 minutes in one epic game in this series. Portland has been wary of matching Collins and Jokic in center-versus-center minutes. Jokic can bulldoze Collins in the post, though Collins thwarted him on one key faceup attack late in Game 6 and drew a charge about a minute later on one of those delicious inverted Jokic pick-and-rolls. Doubling Jokic only unlocks his lethal passing game. Collins is vulnerable on the defensive glass. He's still filling out. Keep an eye on the minutes chess match.

Good thing Collins can play next to Enes Kanter, too -- and defend Denver's power forwards. Portland is plus-15 in 31 Collins-Kanter minutes against the Nuggets, per NBA.com. Millsap has shot just 1-of-11 when matched up with Collins, according to Second Spectrum.

So many of Portland's games against the best competition come down to whether Aminu and Harkless make open 3s. If they miss early, Collins has made a strong case to usurp more minutes at power forward. He and Hood played four minutes of Game 6 in place of the Harkless/Aminu duo alongside Portland's three other starters -- Lillard, McCollum and the tough-as-all-hell Kanter. That five-man group is plus-6 in nine total minutes for the series. Might we see it again Sunday?

Collins has the blurry outlines of a modern big who can protect the rim, shoot 3s, post up guards on switches, and do just enough off the dribble to hurt you. (Witness his Eurostep floater in Game 5 when Denver trapped Lillard on the pick-and-roll, and let Collins slither into open space.) Those outlines have sharpened a bit in these playoffs.

Collins is 4-of-12 from deep in the postseason, and has looked comfortable jacking from above the break. His pick-and-pop triple isn't polished enough to punish Jokic when they are matched up, but he's getting there. (Kanter -- at least the healthy version -- might be able to overpower Plumlee in the post when the double-center lineups face off.) Collins is explosive rolling to the basket, with good start-and-stop footwork; he makes sure a pocket pass is always available for Lillard and McCollum.

On defense, Collins has been a menace protecting the basket; opponents have shot just 46 percent in the restricted area in the playoffs with Collins nearby, eighth stingiest among 48 players who have contested at least four such shots per game. He has flashed the ability to think almost in sync with the opposing offense, and arrive in help position early -- before they expect him there.

Collins is listed at 7 feet. Guys that tall with his skill set project as stretch-centers, but part of their value lies in being malleable enough to play next to almost any frontcourt partner. If Collins hones his 3-point shot, he will provide enough spacing for Portland to fit a traditional center -- Kanter now, Jusuf Nurkic once he recovers from that leg injury -- next to him.

He's quick enough to guard most traditional power forwards. He has not looked out of his element switching onto Murray when needed. Against the dread Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll, Collins has mostly been able to slide onto Murray and rotate back to Jokic without ceding anything good.

Executives across the league have made a parlor game of handicapping the 2019-20 Western Conference in the event Kevin Durant leaves Golden State. The Warriors made a loud statement about that parlor game in running Houston out of the playoffs -- again -- Friday night without Durant. As ever, Portland is overlooked in that discussion. There is a sense these Blazers have reached their apex, and that the Lillard/McCollum duo will still struggle against the wrong playoff matchup.

Maybe. But Lillard and McCollum -- 28 and 27, respectively -- are squarely in their primes. They are good, they are mean, and they are going to cook you. As long as they are in Portland, there will be very few easy nights against the Blazers.

Nurkic is still just 24, and enjoyed a career year across the board before his injury. For much of the season, he was Portland's second-best overall player -- improved on offense, and a bulwark on defense and the glass. (McCollum's crafty shot creation probably jumps him over Nurkic in the playoffs, but Nurkic was awesome this season. He would have received All-Star consideration in the East.)

The forward spots are big questions; Aminu is a sneakily important free agent this summer, a bedrock of Portland's culture and defense, and the capped-out Blazers have limited means to replace him if he leaves.

Collins making a leap would change so much about Portland's short- and long-term trajectory. In the immediate future, he can continue toggling between both big-man spots -- filling some of the power forward gap while manning his more natural position when Nurkic rests. Zoom out, and Collins popping would unlock a lot of interesting trade possibilities should a game-changing deal present itself.

But that's a discussion for another day. These teams have a Game 7 to play. Regardless of the outcome, it has been a successful season for both. Collins' strong play should make Portland fans even more optimistic about the franchise's long-term outlook.