Nurkić, Collins Get A Soft Launch In Scrimmage Loss To Pacers

After over four months of relative inactivity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Portland Trail Blazers got one step closer to resuming the 2019-20 season by losing 91-88 to the Indiana Pacers in the first of three scheduled scrimmages to be held at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.

“So for the first game, not a bad effort,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts of his team’s performance in the 40-minute exhibition held at the HP Arena on the Disney World campus. “I thought we could have played better, obviously, but it’s kind of what we expected.”

While the scrimmage was the first competitive basketball anyone on the Trail Blazers has played since defeating the Phoenix Suns 121-105 at the Moda Center on March 10, it probably meant a little more for Jusuf Nurkić and Zach Collins, both of whom played Thursday afternoon in Orlando for the first time since suffering significant injuries.

For Nurkić, the run, albeit a scrimmage, was his first in public since breaking his left leg in two place in a double overtime victory versus the Brooklyn Nets on March 25, 2019.

“It’s great to be back,” said the 7-0 Bosnian. “The feeling, the excitement, no words man.”

Nurkić was just days away from returning to game action when the season was suspended, so his wait, which had been almost exactly a year to the date of the injury, ended up being four months longer than he anticipated. But it also provided something of a soft relaunch for the center, hardly the worst way to return after suffering a gruesome injury. With no fans in the arena and no pressure to get a win, Thursday’s scrimmage allowed Nurkić to work through any jitters he might have had about playing for the first time in 16 months.

“Tipoff probably more effect for me than the basket,” said Nurkić, who scored Portland’s first points of the scrimmage and finished with 14 points, eight rebounds, a block, an assist and a steal in 20 minutes. “After tipoff, the flow of the game is the same where I left off. I feel like the excitement got me tired. I feel in great shape and everything but just excited for the game, hard breathing, running up and down. Just to see the flow of the game, it’s as nice as you can get.”

Then there’s Collins, who returned to the closest thing to game action he’s seen since dislocating his left shoulder in the third game of the season, an injury that required surgery and months of rehabilitation. The 6-11 power forward/center started and played 19 minutes, going 3-of-5 from the field to finish with six points to go with four rebounds, an assist and a block.

“I think what you saw today is what we’ve been seeing in practice for two weeks,” said Stotts of his returning big men. “Physically they’re good. I thought they complimented each other well when they were on the court. Zach finished around the basket. We probably should have put Nurk in some more passing situations. We kind of kept our play list a little short, but I thought in the opportunities that he had, he looked good. I thought they both played well and basically they’ve played that way for two weeks.”

Portland looked to be the far superior team in the first quarter versus a Pacers squad playing without the likes of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. The Blazers shot 60 percent from the field, scored 14 points in the paint and led by as many as 11 points in the first quarter before taking. a 20-20 advantage into the second.

The game flip-flopped in the second quarter, with Stotts turning the game over to a full bench unit consisting of Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr, Mario Hezonja, Jaylen Hoard and Wenyen Gabriel in the second quarter. The Pacers played more of a conventional rotation and responded by outscoring the Blazers 23-19 in the quarter to cut the lead to 45-43 by the intermission.

Indiana continued to push on in the third with their starters playing most of the quarter. Portland was held top just 38 percent shooting in the third, despite the starters, sans Collins, playing the entirety of the quarter. With Indiana heating up from the field and from three, the Pacers took a 13-point lead, which they’d expand to 14 early in the fourth.

As was the plan, Stotts again turned the game over to the bench in the fourth, and while they were able to significantly cut into Indiana’s lead and had a chance to tie the game late, the situation didn’t warrant a serious crunchtime effort.

“Obviously we didn’t shoot the ball very well, which I’m not too concerned about,” said Stotts. “I thought the starters in the first half really showed what they were capable of doing. I think everybody who was anxious to see Zach and Nurk were probably pleased to see how they played. We didn’t sustain some of the things -- the second group at the start of the second quarter got a little lackadaisical at the defensive end. Indiana hit some threes, I think we played off of them a little bit too much and they shot their threes well in the third quarter to kind of get some separation. But as far as anticipation, when you come into a game like this, you’re going to see some good things and some things you continue to need to work on.”

Hezonja led the Blazers with 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the field and 2-of-4 shooting from three to go with four rebounds, two assists and two steals in 21 minutes. CJ McCollum scored nine of his 11 points in the first quarter and Carmelo Anthony, starting at small forward, went 3-of-9 from the field for eight points, three rebounds, two steals and an assist in 20 minutes.

Trent Jr. finished with 12 points on 12 shots while Gabriel blocked four shots to go along with six points and two rebounds.

Five Pacers players finished in double figured led by 16 points from Justin Holiday.

Next up, the Trail Blazers play the second of three scrimmages, this one of the 48-minute variety and versus the Toronto Raptors, Sunday at 3 p.m.