It’s cursed, Portland is. There is no other way to explain this.
We went to Portland 10 days ago to chronicle the emergence of Jusuf Nurkic, the first good news in the middle in the Rose City in God knows how long. You know the litany by now -- Bill Walton and Sam Bowie and Greg Oden -- centers with promise, great promise, who couldn’t stay healthy long enough to give the Trail Blazers the big man for which they’ve pined. Hell, even Festus Ezeli, signed as a free agent last summer for big bucks, didn’t play a minute this season because of injuries.
And then, here came big Nurkic, acquired from Denver (rather than Jahlil Okafor, whom the Blazers almost got before turning a proposed deal down with Philly) along with a 2017 first-round pick, for center Mason Plumlee. “Big Nurk” had fallen out of favor in Denver, losing minutes and the starting job to Nikola Jokic, after the Nuggets fruitlessly tried to play the two big men together.
Portland wanted to look at Nurkic, but the real motivation for the deal was moving Plumlee -- whom the Blazers knew they wouldn’t be able to pay this coming summer in free agency -- and that pick, which gives Portland three first-rounders.
But Nurkic, still just 22 and in his third NBA season, was motivated to show he could handle a starting role on a playoff team.
He started throwing his body around, and opponents started bouncing all over the place. And in a bit of great theatre, Nurkic clobbered his old team, the Nuggets, in a big showdown between the two teams, fighting for the last playoff spot in the west, late last month. In 33 minutes, Nurkic scored a career-high 33 points, along with 15 rebounds, in a nine-point Portland win, earning him a standing ovation. Two days later, we showed up, for a TNT game against Houston, and Nurk was again very good, posting another double-double -- 19 and 11 -- in another Portland win.
But late in the game, he started limping around, though he finished the game. The next day came the bad news -- a non-displaced fibular fracture of his right leg. The only good news is that he has a chance to be back for the Blazers, who clinched the eighth spot Sunday, for the first round of the playoffs.
Both he and the city need this to happen; the Blazers were 14-6 in his games, and he’s taken immediately to the fans and his teammates, including Damian Lillard, who texted him before the Denver game, saying simply, ‘I need you.’ Lillard says of his new best friend, “he wanted to be wanted. In the NBA, we all want to be wanted.” (This Q&A was conducted before Nurkic’s injury; he’ll be re-evaluated at the end of this week.)
Me: Considering where and how the season started for you and the Nuggets, this has to be fun.
Jusuf Nurkic: It is fun. I just realized how fun it is, how it can be if everything’s in place. It’s great after two tough years to just be in position and show what you can do.
Me: How much does it matter that these guys have reached out to you so strongly -- like Dame sending you a text before the Denver game saying he needed you?
JN: I never have, like, I’m young. I’m 22. I’ve never kind of experienced to have leadership like him. To just, to be there and somebody there to push you on the court. It doesn’t matter how you played, bad or good. He always tells you to push through that. Even if I have a 20-20 (game) and foul trouble the next game, to have a guy like that, it means to me a lot. I’m still going in trying to learn and be consistent in this league. It’s a big time to learn, in the minutes. I don’t care how much you practice; if you don’t play, you not get (better). You can’t show anything. So right now it’s big time for me to be around All-Stars and play with them. Make me, make my job a lot easier.
"That’s my goal when I came here. I want to be in the playoffs, and right now, we’re there."
Me: I would imagine, I assume you and Jokic were cool with each other. But only one of you could play.
JN: Like I say, I’m totally fine. The coach have decision, and the organization, who they want to be their guy. But it would be more fair (if) they say that when I start the season. I was asking them, ‘what are we going to do?,’ and they say we’re gonna play both. But I kind of learn in America, especially in this league, it changes overnight. So I have no issue with that. I know my time is going to come, especially if you work hard every time, it’s going to pay off. I believe in that, and I just keep waiting for my chance, and when chance comes, I’m supposed to be ready. And I’m really happy I come in a right place. I think I’m a perfect fit here, and how it show right now, how it looks. Everybody understands me, like a player. We’re still learning together. Right now we probably have the biggest month in I don’t know how many years. So we kind of learn how to play together and what this team needs. I’m more focused on defense and try to give those guys help. On this team it’s like necessary. It’s a big time for me, but when you’re not play in a couple of months, a month or two, and you try to get back to 35 minutes a game, it’s tough.
Me: How different is this team in terms of teaching?
JN: When I came here I was expecting a lot. I didn’t know exactly what I want, but when I came they make it for me easy. There’s no transition for me. The coaching staff made the plays for me, and we don’t do a whole playbook, so they just shortened the book for me. The teammates, after a couple of games, and practice, they see what they’ve got. It’s really like ‘go there’ and play hard, and everything is going to follow. Dame, C.J., it’s still a big time to play (with them). C.J. and (Allen) Crabbe and those guys who are shooting, it’s amazing how they shoot around. It’s a different situation. I enjoy to play like I’m a rookie, still.
Me: What was the Denver game like for you?
JN: When I got traded, I was asking for a trade and stuff. When I get traded where I want to go, I exactly know what I want to look for. I see what time we play (the Nuggets) again. I know, from that day, I want to have a game like that. There was no doubt in my mind. Because I already know what they want, what they’re gonna do, what plays they’re gonna call. Every player, I know very well -- how they’re going to move, what they’re going to do. So for me, it was easier … I like in the NBA, however you’ve got game -- great, bad -- next game is next game. So tomorrow is tomorrow.
Me: Are you at all familiar with the history of centers in this town?
JN: Yeah (laughs). It feels like it kind of puts pressure on me. But when you see the fans cheering your name, I don’t know what was the last time a European guy or something like that happened, especially with my early games with them. It makes you feel good you’re doing the right stuff and helping your teammates win. That’s my goal when I came here. I want to be in the playoffs, and right now, we’re there.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
-- Northwestern sophomore guard Charlie Hall (@charlie_hall23), Wednesday, 9:12 p.m., putting the rumors to rest once and for all|. Hall played exactly eight minutes this season for the Wildcats, but it was a hard eight minutes. Perhaps Hall is kidding everyone, though; his mother is the comedic actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
THEY SAID IT
“Nobody care about his reputation. I could care less. I don’t even know who he is. He’s happy he just got back in the league."
-- Raptors forward P.J. Tucker, after the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson went in for a meaningless, unnecessary basket in the final seconds of Indiana’s route of Toronto on Tuesday in his first game back with the Pacers. Stephenson apologized afterward.
“This is not an easy decision. The most recent change in the law does not mean the fundamental issues are resolved. But after considering all points of view, we concluded that Charlotte will be eligible to host the 2019 NBA All-Star Game.”
-- NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, after Friday’s Board of Governors’ meeting, during which owners voted to again consider Charlotte for the game, after stripping this year’s All-Star Game from the city and awarding it to New Orleans. The NBA made the move after the North Carolina legislature, with the support of the state’s now-former governor, passed HB2, the so-called “bathroom bill,” that designated people in the state would have to use restrooms in government and state buildings corresponding with their gender at birth. The bill was viewed as discriminatory toward transgender people. The new governor and legislature passed new legislation last month, but many civil rights groups immediately condemned the new bill as even worse than the original, saying it does nothing to restore the protections for trans people that were wiped out statewide by HB2.
"We've to get better at point. There's no question. If we can't do it in the draft, we'll look at free agency."
-- Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, to local reporters, on Dallas’ offseason needs after the Mavs failed to make the playoffs for just the second time in the last 17 seasons.
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