It is already well established that the Portland Trail Blazers’ deal with the Denver Nuggets to obtain big man Jusuf Nurkic was the steal of this season’s trade deadline. What was reported at the time as a deal for Mason Plumlee is now something quite different — Nurkic has been a godsend for the previously slumping Blazers, while Plumlee has been a non-factor as Nikola Jokic’s backup for the Nuggets.
Yet the trade wouldn’t be half as notable if these teams weren’t also fighting for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Blazers and Nuggets entered Tuesday night’s big matchup at Moda Center tied in the standings at 35-38. A win for the Blazers would give them the season series tiebreaker (and an effective two-game lead in the standings), so the stakes could not have been higher.
It’s only fitting that Nurkic proved the difference. The burly Bosnian dominated the paint and scored 13 of his career-high 33 points (12-of-15 FG, 9-of-11 FT) in the first quarter and added 16 rebounds (six offensive) and three blocks to lead the Blazers to a huge 122-113 win. For those keeping track, Plumlee finished with no points (on four attempts), three assists, two rebounds, and a minus-11 in 16 minutes.
Oh, and Nurkic also took the time to wish his old teammates a fun vacation after the game:
Is that a bit much for a member of a team that still hasn’t hit .500? Perhaps. On the other hand, Nurkic is thriving with regular time and understandably wants to prove to Denver that it made a mistake in dealing him. Can you blame him for getting in a dig or two?
But the Nurkic-Blazers experience isn’t just about revenge. He appears to have found a real home in Portland, where he has quickly become one of the team’s most popular players. Tuesday’s crowd ate up his incredible performance:
Find someone who loves you as much as Portland fans (currently chanting "MVP" with him at the free throw line) love Jusuf Nurkic.
— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) March 29, 2017
JU-SUF NURK-IC chants have started
— E. García Gundersen (@Erik_Gundersen) March 29, 2017
Install location TBD. pic.twitter.com/T74ZQ5nVvA
— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) March 29, 2017
Nurkic was such a force, in fact, that it’s almost shocking he didn’t lead the Blazers in scoring. Star guard C.J. McCollum was just as impactful with 39 points (15-of-24 FG) and, along with Damian Lillard, flummoxed the Nuggets again and again by combining with Nurkic in the high pick-and-roll. This game found the Blazers offense at its best — the guards made good decisions, Nurkic exploited space, and everyone limited mistakes to come away with the win.
Denver had little trouble scoring, too, but it lacked the star power of Portland in this one. That difference proved important in the third quarter, when the Blazers put together enough solid defensive minutes to limit the Nuggets to 21 points. That stretch was enough to open up a 10-point lead heading into the fourth, and the visitors lacked the defensive ability to put together a meaningful comeback.
The standings say the Blazers are just one game up on the Nuggets, but the gap feels much larger. In addition to the tiebreaker, Portland has the luxury of playing six of its final eight games at home (including the last four). That slate only feature one real gimme (vs. Phoenix), but the comfort factor should give them an edge over Denver, which hits the road for all but two of their last eight. After a rough first half of the season, the Blazers look to be on their way to salvaging a playoff berth. And they largely have Nurkic to thank for it.
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