In the second overtime of Monday night’s game between the Blazers and the Nets, which easily could have ended in regulation, Jusuf Nurkic jumped to try to grab a rebound. He came down awkwardly and suffered season-ending compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula—the same injury Paul George suffered to his right leg in 2014. Nets players hurried away from the area below the basket where Nurkic lay and trainers rushed to him, putting a towel over his leg. The fans, at first shocked, eventually began chanting Nurkic’s name. Even though the Blazers would eventually pull out the 148-144 win over Brooklyn, the game seemed like a loss for Portland.
It wouldn’t be fair to get into any big-picture ramifications without first focusing on Nurkic, who had been in the middle of the best season of his career. His 15.6 points a game on a 51 effective field goal percentage and 23.4 PER are all career-high numbers, and he was on track to play 81 games this season—the first time he’d top 80. Nurkic was also adding 10.4 rebounds per game and 3.2 assists, the latter mark setting a career high. When Nurkic came off the court, the Blazers’ net rating dropped from plus-10.4 to minus-5.0. Only Damian Lillard—whose absence from the floor accounts for a change in net rating from plus-7.6 to minus-8.3—creates a wider gap. Of the team’s five most-used lineups, the two without Nurkic have the lowest plus-minus.
He’s more than just his numbers, though. The team has mostly been led by guards since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge, but Nurkic gave Portland a different dimension on both ends of the floor. In Monday night’s game, he scored a season-high, team-high 32 points on 24 shots, compensating for the fact that it took Lillard 30 attempts to get 31 points.
So, where will the Blazers go from here? Portland was already dealing with hurt CJ McCollum, who sustained a left knee injury and is expected to be out at least through the rest of the regular season. And while Lillard’s continued improvement is admirable, there’s only so much he can do. Opposing teams can sell out to stop him even more without having to worry about Nurkic as another reliable option.
Head coach Terry Stotts doesn’t seem to have any promising backup plans in his pocket. The team added Enes Kanter on the buyout market earlier this season, but he’s more suited to being memed than he is to become a consistent two-way big. In 15 appearances so far, Kanter is averaging 10.4 points on 54.1 percent shooting and 7.1 rebounds, but Portland’s defensive rating improves by nearly eight points when he’s off the floor. Billy Donovan has already warned us: come playoff time, you Can’t. Play. Kanter. Stotts might have to, though, unless he’s willing to suddenly boost Zach Collins’s minutes from a paltry 17.5 a game. Collins is a second-year player who came into the league with a lot of upside but has only showed enough flashes to be more of a theoretically successful modern big than any sure thing (his per-36 numbers include a decent 13.2 points and 8.6 rebounds, but also 4.9 fouls), much less one Stotts can rely on in the postseason. But now it may be time to take the training wheels off.
Stotts will probably have to rely on a combination of Kanter and Collins, as well as Meyers Leonard, to shore up those frontcourt minutes. The options aren’t pretty, and the team isn’t set up to go small either. Plus, the rebounding lost from Nurkic will have a trickle-down effect: Fewer rebounds means fewer second-chance opportunities, and Portland’s average of 14.7 second-chance points is fourth best in the league.
This isn’t the first time a Portland playoff run has been derailed by a brutal injury: Wes Matthews’s season-ending Achilles injury in March 2015 essentially capped that Blazers season. Continuity and internal growth were a big part of why Portland hung in and around the top four in the West for most of the season, and a large factor in why this year’s playoffs could’ve been different than those of years past. Now, it’s difficult to see a successful postseason as anything more than a long shot.