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“They Need Me, and I Need Them”

The story of how Jusuf Nurkic, a center cast out of Denver, and Portland, a team on the ropes, found each other, just in time for a mad push toward the playoffs

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Early in Tuesday’s crucial game against the Nuggets, Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic ran a pick-and-roll. Lillard dished to Nurkic right as he barreled into the paint. Danilo Gallinari and Nikola Jokic collapsed on him, which was just fine with Nurkic. There was no nod toward subtlety, no feint at finesse. The 7-foot Blazers center bulldozed both of his former teammates, knocking Gallinari back a few feet in the process. Nurkic reached the rim, made the layup, and got fouled. Meyers Leonard and the guys at the end of the Blazers bench immediately leapt up and high-fived him. The crowd chanted his name. They do that a lot these days. Oh how they love Nurkic in Portland, and oh how he loves them.

“I told him [Monday night], ‘I think it’s gonna go real well for you,’” Lillard said after the game. “I feel like it’s written that way. It’s supposed to be that way. Right away, early, I saw some of the shots where he might get hit a little bit and it went in. And in my head I was like, ‘I was right about it. It’s gonna be his night.’”

Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard (Getty Images)
Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard (Getty Images)

And so it was. Nurkic spent the game trying to put a body on the entire Nuggets team, to the point where you half expected him to go muscle Mike Malone during timeouts. He had a double-double by early in the third quarter, and finished with a career-high 33 points, 16 rebounds, two assists, and three blocks. C.J. McCollum had a game-high 39 points. Lillard added 19 points. The rest of the team mustered only 31 points combined. It didn’t matter. Portland beat the Nuggets 122–113 at the Moda Center to move one game ahead of Denver for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Blazers have scored 100 points or more in 16 of their past 20 games, and they’ve beaten the Nuggets 14 times in the past 16 regular-season meetings. Tuesday’s win also gave the Blazers a 3–1 edge in the season series against Denver, which means they control the playoff tiebreaker should it come to that.

Life couldn’t be much better right now for the Blazers and Nurkic. When he came out of the game late in the fourth quarter, Nurkic’s current teammates mobbed him and the crowd gave him a much-deserved standing ovation. Afterward, Jameer Nelson, Kenneth Faried, and a host of Nuggets hugged it out with their old pal. It was a real after-school-special kind of moment, though it didn’t prevent Nurkic from throwing a little shade Denver’s way.

In the on-court postgame interview, he said he knew the Blazers would be a playoff team from the moment he was traded to Portland in February. Then Nurkic dunked on the Nuggets one last time.

“I wish those guys a happy summer,” he said.

Raise your hand if you thought Portland would battle Denver for the final Western Conference playoff spot. (No one should have a hand up. If you have a hand up, kindly put it down in the interest of honesty.)

After stumbling through the early-season schedule, the Blazers are closing in on the postseason once again. They’ve reached the playoffs in each of the past three years, but their regular-season win totals have also declined over the same stretch, dipping from 54 victories in 2013–14, to 51 in 2014–15, to 44 last season, to 36 at present with eight games remaining. A year ago, they got bounced in the Western Conference semifinals by Golden State. Two years ago, the Grizzlies sent them home in the first round. The year before that it was the Spurs that dispatched them in the semis. While they’ve been a postseason fixture lately, the most memorable playoff moment they mustered came three years ago when Lillard hit a 3-point buzzer-beater to win a first-round series against the Rockets — a shot made possible when Chandler Parsons’s forever-broken defensive GPS caused him to get lost on the play.

But before the Blazers can attempt to do something meaningful in the playoffs, they first have to make it there again. “Playoffs is the most fun part of the season,” Lillard said on March 19, “and I’m not trying to miss that.”

As recently as mid-February, that’s exactly what appeared would happen. The Blazers’ playoff aspirations looked so grim back then that they might as well have changed the name to RIP City. (At the time, FiveThirtyEight ballparked their chances to make the playoffs at 19 percent.) That’s when the Blazers made a move, one that’s obvious in its importance now but seemed less significant at the time. When Portland traded Mason Plumlee for Jusuf Nurkic, he had fallen so far out of favor in Denver that the Nuggets included a first-round pick to make the deal happen. No reasonable person could have predicted that Nurkic would then transform himself into a stat-sheet stuffer and a catalyst for the Blazers’ postseason push.

“For whatever reason, our system didn’t work for him,” Nelson said. “I don’t know if it was him or our system, but somehow, some way, it didn’t work.”

Nelson said he was happy for Nurkic, and he added that the trade has “worked out well for both teams.” That’s true to an extent. But especially after Tuesday evening, it looks a bit better for one side than the other.

Things were pretty dark for Jusuf Nurkic back in December. He began the year as a starter in Denver, but his playing time dropped off dramatically when Mike Malone pressed the detonation plunger on the idea of playing his two bigs together in the same lineup. All of a sudden, Nikola Jokic was the guy and Nurkic wasn’t.

It was unquestionably the right decision for Malone and the Nuggets, but it didn’t go over all that well with Nurkic, who caught four DNP-CDs in December and averaged just under 16 minutes per game that month when he did see the court. At the time, there were rumblings around the league that Nurkic wasn’t happy and his discontent was causing internal friction for the Nuggets — which might have been waved off by disbelievers as little more than NBA gossip if not for Nurkic telling anyone who would listen, on the record, that, yeah, he was not pleased.

(Aaron Dana)
(Aaron Dana)

Nurkic informed the Denver Post in late December that things were “not good” and explained “when you (don’t) play, and you feel not part of the team, it’s not fun.” He said it was tough and insisted he was too good to sit on the bench. By February, circumstances had deteriorated so plainly that Nurkic was being accused in the press of “pouting.” The situation was bad enough that the Nuggets decided they would rather have Plumlee and a second-rounder instead of a talented (but frustrated) 22-year-old Bosnian and a first-round pick.

It’s hard to say who was in worse shape at that point, the Trail Blazers — who were eight games under .500 when they made the move — or Nurkic, who had been so deeply and openly unhappy that he long ago stopped pretending otherwise. Either way, he could hardly hide his glee over finally departing Denver. Upon landing in Portland, Nurkic called it “the perfect place” for him. You got the sense that he might have said something similar had he been shipped to the Guangdong Southern Tigers, but in retrospect it’s hard not to acknowledge the attendant truth and prescience.

“They need me,” Nurkic said at the time, “and I need them.”

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

With Nurkic in the lineup, the Blazers are 13–6. Terry Stotts unshackled the Bosnian Beast and encouraged him to swallow up Portland’s competition. Nurk’s numbers have ballooned with the Blazers despite only a slight uptick in usage rate from his time in Denver. After averaging eight points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, and 0.8 blocks with the Nuggets, Nurkic has posted 15 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game in Portland. According to NBA.com, his net rating has mushroomed from minus-10.3 with the Nuggets to plus-8.9 with the Blazers. He’s been so good for Portland that even default detractor Charles Barkley couldn’t help but marvel at some of Nurkic’s lines.

“You bring a player in midseason, you’ve got to put things in piecemeal,” Stotts said. “But I think he has a very high basketball IQ, which helped. For us, it’s been an advantage that he picked up things pretty quickly.”

Before securing Nurkic’s services, the Blazers were a strange and underachieving team. But according to NBA.com, Portland has the league’s sixth-best net rating since folding Nurkic into the lineup in mid-February. Small sample size or no, it’s been hard to ignore the mark of the beast. The Blazers are plus-4.5 with Nurkic on the floor and minus-3.6 when he sits, per NBA.com. He’s done so much for them that it’s gotten to the point where he should come complete with a fun League Pass alert upon checking in.

Nurkic has always had a mean streak in him. He’s never been afraid to trash talk after a big block or mean mug league royalty. And it’s no surprise that he’s all too happy to set vicious picks for his new teammates. But while Nurkic has been as advertised in that regard, he’s been much better than anyone could have predicted as a passer. He was good at it in Denver, but it wasn’t a skill set he got to use much. Not so in Portland, where he makes nifty passes with regularity.

In Denver, Nurkic had a 12.5 assist percentage; with Portland, he has a 17.3 assist percentage, per NBA.com. The improvement was good enough to vault him to tied for fourth in assist rate among centers this season, according to Basketball-Reference.

Nurkic has gotten better as a rim protector, too. In addition to getting more blocks, Nurkic is holding opponents to a 51.8 shooting percentage at the rim since he joined the Blazers, per NBA.com. That’s a better mark than fellow big men/trade chips Nerlens Noel (55.5) and DeMarcus Cousins (54.7) during the same period.

It wasn’t Mike Malone’s decision to trade Nurkic, but he was instrumental in pushing Nurkic out of the starting spotlight and into the reserve shadows. Malone said that wasn’t because he didn’t believe in Nurkic’s talent, but rather because “we have our starting center” in Jokic. It’s hard to fault the logic there, but the way things were handled also seemed to act as a major motivator for Nurkic after he left Denver for Portland. As Jameer Nelson explained, “You put a guy in a situation and his back is up a little and you can see a lot about a guy.”

After Tuesday evening’s win, Nurkic was asked if his performance was meant as a reminder to the Nuggets organization about what they gave up in the trade. Nurkic shook his head.

“They know definitely what they’re missing,” he said. “They know.”

One more Nurkic story, because as Lillard foretold, it was Nurk’s night. Before Tuesday’s game began, Stotts stood just outside the Blazers locker room and addressed the media assembly. It was standard pregame stuff, except Stotts remarked that the press pack was unusually large for Portland. Big game, he said. When the interview began, he was naturally asked about Nurkic right away. Before he could answer, and as if on cue — as though simply mentioning his name could automatically conjure the man from thin air — Nurkic popped out from behind a nearby door.

“Hey Jusuf,” Stotts said, pausing the interview, “all this is because of you, man.”

It made Nurkic laugh hard enough he practically blushed. “Stop it,” he replied — but it didn’t seem like he meant it. Then he turned and headed out to the court to join his new team in the service of slaying his old one.