Lillard Accepts No Apologies After Nurkić's Big Yet Imperfect Performance In Brooklyn

by Casey Holdahl
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BROOKLYN -- Center Jusuf Nurkić felt like he needed to apologize as he left the court after playing a primary role in helping the Trail Blazers defeat the Nets 127-125 in front of a crowd of 15,246 at the Barclays Center.

Though he finished the game with 29 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks, making him just the third Trail Blazer to ever put up those kind of numbers (Mychal Thompson did it once, Bill Walton twice), the 7-0 Bosnian missed two free throws with 2.3 seconds to play, leaving the door open for the Nets to potential tie or even win the game with a last-second shot.

“I know I'm way better free throw shooter than I'm showing,” said Nurkić, who went 5-of-10 overall from the free throw in Friday’s win. “I take (it) hard myself because a lot of things I could be better but free throws must be better. That's important for me and for the team, especially late in the game.”

And Nurkić is right, it is important to make your free throws, especially on a team that has had trouble both scoring and closing out games in the clutch. But when Nurkić tried to deliver his mea culpa as the team headed though the tunnel to the visitors locker room, Damian Lillard wasn’t trying to hear it. Instead, Lillard focused his attention of the play Nurkić made 25 seconds before, a play in which he had a layup attempt blocked, but managed to steal the ball back and finish an and-one layup. The bucket and the resulting free throw, which he made, put Portland up 126-123 with 27.6 seconds to play.

“After the game (Nurkić) was telling me 'My bad, I missed the free throw. I did this and I did that,’” said Lillard. “And I stopped in the hallway, I said 'I don't care about none of that. The most important thing is you made the biggest play of the game.’”

After a truly stellar beginning to his career as a Trail Blazer, the start of the 2017-18 season has been hit and miss for Nurkić. He’s shooting six percentage points worse from the field, is grabbing four fewer rebounds per game and averaging almost half as many assists through the first 18 games than he did in his first 20 games after being acquired via trade from Denver in February.

But his performance Friday afternoon in Brooklyn was the closest he’s looked this season to the player who infected Rip City with “Nurk Fever” during the Trail Blazers’ playoff push last season, which might have been why Lillard, who is greatly admired by Nurkić, was adamant on directing the conversation back to something more positive.

“We could have easily been up against it,” said Lillard. “He got his hand on the ball, caught it, went up strong, finished it, and-one. That was the play of the game and that's just him making the winning play and staying with it. When you do stuff like that you give yourself a chance.”

For the Trail Blazers to have any chance of being more than an also-ran in the Western Conference this season, they’ll need Nurkić to have a lot more performances like the one he turned in Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. He knows that, which is probably why he was more focused on the shots the plays he didn’t make than the ones he did. But for a young player who can be prone to bouts of negativity, having teammates who highlight your successes, especially after wins, can go a long way toward keeping the emphasis on what is important.

“It takes time to figure out but I need to be like this every night,” said Nurkić. “It's consistency we're talking about all year and last year too. That matters for us. When I play, this team need me and I need to be better. If we want to win big games and a lot of games, I need to be there and right 100 percent every night, so I'm focused on that.”