Trail Blazers Hope To Get 'Mad Nurkić' More Often

by Casey Holdahl
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It took a total team effort for the Trail Blazers to overcome an 18-point third-quarter deficit to best the Philadelphia 76ers 114-110 Thursday night at the Moda Center, thus ending a six-game home losing streak.

There was the play of Shabazz Napier, who scored 22 points on 7-of-9 shooting in the second half after going 0-of-5 from the field in the first half. And CJ McCollum going a perfect 14-of-14 from the free throw line, which also happened to be the same number of free throws that Philadelphia took as a team Thursday night. And timely contributions off the bench from Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless, all of which helped the Trail Blazers finish their 2017 home schedule with a win despite once again playing without starting point guard Damian Lillard (right hamstring strain).

But nothing might have been as important to Portland’s fourth-quarter rally as Jusuf Nurkić getting the bridge of his nose cut open thanks to a collision with Sixers guard JJ Redick just before the nine minute mark of the third quarter. To add insult to minor injury, Nurkić, who has taken his fair share of shots to the head this season, was called for a foul on the play, prompting the 7-0 center to incredulously plead his case to the referees with blood running down his face before heading back to the locker room for treatment.

The anger Nurkić felt as he left the court didn’t abate when he returned late in the third quarter after having his nose patched up. Between the blood, the foul calls and being on the losing end of the matchup with Sixers center Joel Embiid, Nurkić was fed up, and he went out and played like it.

“Nurk, after he came back, played with a lot of passion, a lot of energy,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “That was obvious.”

Playing all but nine seconds of the fourth quarter, Nurkić went for 10 points on 2-of-4 shooting from the field and 6-of-8 shooting from the free throw line, two offense rebounds, two defensive rebounds, a block and steal in the final 12 minutes of play to help Portland overcome a 14-point deficit.

“I was trying to kill everybody almost, like in good ways,” said Nurkić. “When I go out there I just have one thing on my mind: how we gonna win the game.”

What’s more, he was able to limit Embiid to nine points, all of which came off of three-pointers, and one rebound in the fourth.

“I liked mad Nurkić,” said CJ McCollum, whose 34 points played no small role in the victory Thursday night. “Mad Nurkic makes free throws, he dunks, he does a lot of different things that we need. And from a verticality standpoint at the defensive end, keeping those guys off the free throw line was big.”

Nurkić finished the game with 21 points on 5-of-13 shooting from the field, 11-of-16 shooting from the line, 12 rebounds, a block and an assist in 28 minutes in a game Portland desperately needed to win before heading out for a three-game road trip.

“I think getting hit in the nose changed (Nurkić),” said Stotts. “That was pretty obvious.”

It was a performance that was reminiscent of last season, when Nurkić, after being acquired via trade from the Denver Nuggets, all but propelled the Trail Blazers into the postseason by averaging 15.2 points on 51 percent shooting, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals in 20 games before suffering a non-displaced fracture in his right leg. For whatever reason, the “Bosnian Beast” hasn’t been the same player this season — he’s shooting six percentage points worse from the field, grabbing almost three fewer rebounds a game and his assists have almost been cut in half — prompting some to wonder if perhaps getting roughed up every game might be beneficial to Nurkić and the Trail Blazers as a whole.

For his part, Nurkić noted performances like Thursday’s need to be a more regular occurrence for the 7-foot center, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason, though he’d rather not get punched in the nose on a nightly basis in the process.

“I was mad and probably the more I get mad I play better,” said Nurkić. “"I'm not saying every game `Hit me in the nose' but I just need to play with the same energy every game like this."