PORTLAND –- The first round of the French election was just getting underway, the United States was a week away from completing its first 100 days of President Donald Trump and at the building formerly known as the Rose Garden, the Portland Trail Blazers enjoyed, for one final night in the 2016-17 season, the sensation known locally as “Nurkic Fever.”
And in that fever, the franchise has had the most positive visions of the future they’ve had since Damian Lillard’s buzzer-beater lifted Portland’s 14-year drought without winning a playoff series.
The Bosnian big man gave the home faithful, and a national audience, a taste of the magic in his brief Game 3 return, grabbing 11 rebounds (the highest total for any Blazer in the series) in 17 minutes and the Blazers blew a 17-point lead, 119-113. Nurkic didn’t re-injure his broken right leg, but he made clear after the game how hurt he was. “It’s a broke leg,” he said. “I can’t heal in just one day.” He was ruled out for Game 4 the following afternoon.
Two days later the Warriors, who welcomed back Kevin Durant but were still without Steve Kerr on the sideline, ended Portland’s season in a 128-103 blowout and one-upped Cleveland’s sweep the night before in another display of elegant ferocity.
You could hear a pin drop in the Blazers' locker room after blowing a 17-point lead, staring a 3-0 series deficit in the face. Reality set in, but despair should not, regardless of their daunting cap sheet.
While there might be a rush to diminish Portland’s late-season surge and forget this series ever happened, their two most recent playoff meetings against Warriors cannot be removed from their reality. For the second straight postseason, the biggest difference between the Blazers and the league’s marquee team, has been Draymond Green.
He called Moe Harkless cheap. He jawed with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who returned the favor. He told the Blazers he would take their lunch money and did it anyway.
Lillard and McCollum have shown that their ability to score carries over into the postseason, even outscoring Curry and Thompson in this series (201-192). Before Game 4, each of Lillard (47.0 efG%), and McCollum (49.0 eFG%) registered better career playoff effective field goal percentages than Washington’s John Wall and Bradley Beal, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas.
The Warriors, with a backcourt whose greatness stands alone, were in a similar spot before Green truly emerged. Portland has been waiting for another big man since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge. And in Nurkic, for the first time since Aldridge went to San Antonio, they have someone in the middle that can dominate. And even in a short time, the love the city has for Nurkic already rivals even the best moments of Aldridge’s run.
Nurkic’s return was heroic and dramatic, even while walking up and down the court Saturday night, looking like a savvy veteran rather than a 22-year-old.
“Obviously, he was a shell of himself,” CJ McCollum said following Game 3. “He was still able to get 11 rebounds and make some plays from the post interior passing-wise, but obviously you guys have seen Nurk at full strength to what he was tonight.”
The Blazers were buoyed by his return, in spirit and strategy. In the locker room before the game, Allen Crabbe told me about how many things Nurkic can open up and the Bosnian Beast, with a Green-like confidence, knows just how much of an impact he has.
“I know that when I’m there, we play with an edge,” Nurkic said while explaining why he couldn’t watch the whole series from the bench. “They feel a safety about it. It was good to be out there, even if I’m 50 percent. I wish we won, it would be even better.”
In 21 games with Nurkic, including one before the All-Star break when he was very out of shape (what’s the conditioning plan in Denver?), Portland had a top-10 defensive rating and a top-five net-rating. Portland had a similar stretch last season, but Nurkic’s impact has guys talking about the difference they feel with their center in a way they didn’t during Mason Plumlee’s time. Not since Robin Lopez have the Blazers felt such a strong presence on defense. And not since Aldridge have they felt one with such a strong presence on offense. His willingness to set lumbering picks and while possessing the skill to score, or create for others when he catches it, is a combination Portland’s perimeter oriented attack has long lacked.
“Part of it was the way we’re allowed to play when he’s on the floor,” Lillard said of Portland’s strong start with Nurkic, who was a +8 in Game 3. “He’s really good at setting screens and then rolling to the middle of the defense making the right decision, whether that’s him floating or hitting a guy on the weak side, swing-swing for threes.”
In Portland’s 11-3 start, Nurkic was the start of everything: a post-up basket, an assist, and a hockey assist.
When Portland was soaring in March, Al-Farouq Aminu described the freedom with which Nurkic allows the Blazers to play. “We’re able to bring it down into Nurk, who is a big presence at the rim, which has been very helpful,” Aminu said. “Being able to run people off the line and then at the rim have protection as well.”
The Blazers have been a bottom five team in opponent 3-point percentage in back-to-back seasons (37% in both seasons), but during their 21 games with Nurkic, opponent 3-point percentage dropped two full percentage points to 34.9%, about league-average.
The Warriors discussed Nurkic’s potential return in every shootaround, Green said. And while the Warriors eventually showed their championship pedigree, crushing the hearts of the fans in attendance, Portland looks more equipped for their future after Stephen Curry’s 2017 dagger than they did after the 2016 edition, cap sheet be damned.
After at least two years without a true frontcourt complement to their elite backcourt talent, the Blazers and their fans don’t have to look to the trade checker or free agent lists for ideas. A guy who Portland must have, not someone who they’d be fine keeping. And as amazing as Nurkic fever was, Portland’s rocky season serves as yet another reminder of the NBA truism that growth is not guaranteed. The impact on the floor must prove to be sustainable, but perhaps nothing else should make Portland excited for next season more than the confidence with Nurkic calls his shots.
Whether it was wishing his former Denver Nuggets a great summer over the PA system after putting up 33 points and 16 rebounds with eight games left to play or showing up in the biggest moment of the season even while severely diminished, it’s his unshakable confidence that ties it all together. And before he walked off for the season, he called his shot one more time.
“It’s definitely going to be way, way different than this,” Nurkic said when asked about what a postseason series would be like if he were healthy. “I believe and I already know that.”
If nothing else, Nurkic’s cameo on one leg and statements after showed that Lillard and McCollum finally have someone who shares their confidence. And confidence, especially in the postseason, is a commodity in short supply.
And to see Draymond Green, the man who will go after the heart, makes the importance of confidence more difficult to question.
When Green tipped Nurkic’s pass on the first possession of his postseason career, he jawed at Nurkic but the Bosnian, true to form, jawed right back, following the lead of Portland’s star guards.
After a season that refueled debates about how far the Blazers can go or whether a postseason berth was worth it at all, Nurkic salvaged their season. And Nurkic’s first taste of the postseason showed there is more hope than ever that future jawing between the Blazers and Warriors won’t be confined to the first round of the playoffs.