The Portland Trail Blazers hosted the Philadelphia 76ers tonight with 2,000 kids on hand as part of Blazer’s Edge Night, our annual charity event sending children to the Moda Center, many for the first time. I imagine at least 1,998 of those kids came away from the game huge Jusuf Nurkic fans. The Bosnian Beast led the team to a tough, 114-108 overtime victory, with 28 points, 20 rebounds, 8 assists, 6 blocks, and 2 steals.
Yep, you read that stat line right. Portland’s 22 year-old center was somewhat close to a 5 by 5, extremely close to a triple-double, and put up an actual 20-20 game.
Nurkic started the game matched up with Jahlil Okafor, rumored to be the other big man the Blazers considered trading for at the annual Trade Deadline. Nurkic spent the first quarter convincing every Blazers fan that the front office made the right decision. At the 11:18 mark, Nurkic blocked Okafor in the post, eating up his shot attempt like a plate of Cevapi. And just to prove his point, he ran right through Okafor’s chest for an easy layup on the next possession. The carnage didn’t stop there. By the end of the period, Nurkic had collected five blocks, taken everyone’s lunch money, and emptied their Pez dispensers. All the while, the Stottsfense was churning around the big man. Portland led 27-17 when the buzzer sounded. It looked like party time for Rip City.
But what’s a party unless everyone gets to partake? That seemed to be the attitude of Portland’s second unit. Perhaps they felt bad that all the fun was coming at Philadelphia’s expense. Portland’s lackadaisical defense and sloppy ball control became an invitation and the Sixers did not need to be asked twice. Dario Saric started shaking his groove thang and soon all of his teammates were up on the dance floor. The Sixers found their rhythm and wouldn’t give it up for the rest of the period. As a team, they shot 74% from the field and put up 35 points. Basketball purists may have been grumbling under their breath but everyone seemed to be having a blast. Portland was up 57-52 at the break.
The festivities must have multiplied in the locker rooms because both teams came out sloppy to start the third. It seemed like Portland was at that perfect level of drunk where you can still dominate a game of beer pong but struggle to perform basic tasks. They’d move the ball beautifully on offense only to give up an open three in transition. A striking defensive possession would generate a steal only for someone to lose the ball on the ensuing runout. Portland just couldn’t put it together.
Philadelphia wasn’t much better but they turned it on at the end of the third. A 9-0 run, capped off by a Saric three at the buzzer, gave the Sixers a 78-76 lead. The Blazers were losing to an undermanned cellar-dweller going into the fourth. Not good.
The slopfest continued in the final period as neither side managed to take advantage of the other’s carelessness. Few shots fell but everyone kept playing free and loose like it was still the second quarter and no-one could miss. Quick possessions led to rushed shots and sloppy turnovers. With both teams struggling, the game stayed close.
The Bosnian Beast was the one consistent bright spot in all this. He was still balling his butt off, snatching rebounds, protecting the paint, and scoring every which way. He played so well that he earned the play call on one of the most critical possessions in the game.
Dario Saric hit a pair of free throws to give Philadelphia a one point lead with 55 seconds left. On the next possession, the ball went out of bounds under the basket and Stotts called the famous Hi-Low play. Al-farouq Aminu caught the ball at the free-throw line and entered the ball to Nurkic who had sealed his man down low. He got fouled and made one of two to tie the game with 33 seconds to go.
The final half a minute was a series of blunders from both sides ending in a draw. Robert Covington fouled CJ McCollum in the open court with 19 seconds left and the game tied. CJ calmly drained both free throws putting Portland up 97-95.
With Portland needing one stop they swarmed the ball, Aminu forced a steal with 14 seconds left. Incredibly, he threw the ball out of bounds instead of running out the clock. That gave Philadelphia the ball down two with 11 seconds left.
Portland still needed one stop. They swarmed the ball, forced a terrible fade-away jumper, but failed to secure the rebound. Robert Covington tied the game with a putback as time expired. The game was headed to overtime.
At this point, the Blazers were done hosting. The party had gone on way longer than they had planned and everyone just wanted to go home. It was time to turn off the music, pick up a trash bag, and kick out the pesky guests.
That’s where Damian Lillard came in. With 1:53 left and the game tied, Dame attacked on three straight plays. The offense wasn’t pretty in the classic sense but it earned him a layup and two trips to the foul line. Those plays put the Blazers up four with 40 seconds left and the Sixers inbounding at mid-court. Nurkic would cap off his career night by forcing a turnover on the inbound pass and Portland would coast the rest of the way. A jubilant celebration marked the 114-108 overtime victory.
Holy cow! Have a night Jusuf Nurkic! The Bosnian Beast had one of the best games we’ve seen from a Blazers center in a decade. He was everywhere tonight and the only player to perform well throughout the whole contest. Beyond his stat line, which was gaudy (28 points, 20 rebounds, 8 assists, 6 blocks, 2 steals), it’s important to note that he accumulated those numbers in a way that bodes well for his future.
He didn’t just collect 8 assists: He passed to cutters out of the post, he found dump passes out of the pick-and-roll, and he orchestrated the offense from the high post. He didn’t just collect 28 points: He scored one-on-one, he got multiple garbage buckets outside the offense, and he hit pull-up jumpers. That kind of offensive versatility is rare.
The fact that it came along with his most impressive defensive performance is icing on the cake. Those 6 blocks and 2 steals undersell the impact he had tonight. He kept track of cutters, was disciplined in the pick-and-roll, and forced multiple misses at the rim by contesting with verticality. Tonight was a masterful, two-way performance. Portland doesn’t come close to winning that game without the Bosnian Beast.
It’s amazing how much of a difference the bench also makes. The Blazers are starting to get consistent performances from Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic. Everyone else is hit or miss. When they all hit, like last game against Oklahoma City, the team looks dynamic. When they don’t, they look stagnant without enough talent to excel. Tonight was a mixed bag, with 18 points from Allen Crabbe on 12 shots, but only 7 points from the rest of the reserves.
But no matter how well the bench plays, Portland has got to take better care of the ball. They had 19 turnovers tonight, most of them unforced and inexcusable. It almost cost them the game and they won’t have near the same margin of error against the rest of the NBA. It might be easy if this was an individual’s problem, but five different Blazers had at least three turnovers tonight.
I already talked about Jusuf Nurkic above but let’s give him another three cheers anyway! Woot! Woot! Woot!
Damian Lillard had a rough shooting night (24 points on 6/21 shooting) but responded by going 12-for-12 from the charity stripe. That’s what you expect from a star and Lillard delivered when it mattered most.
CJ McCollum shot well but wasn’t able to take over the game like we’ve seen in the past. With Damian struggling, this would have been a great night for CJ to take over. The fact that the team only scored 40 points in the entire second half shows you how much of a slog it was for these two guards tonight. 23 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists.
Al-farouq Aminu was a mixed-bag. He played brilliant defense down the stretch but, man, did he undermine the team on offense. The turnover at the end of regulation was horrible but there were several other atrocious turnovers earlier in the game. The fact that he shot 1/7 for 2 points also didn’t help. The Blazers need Aminu but too often they can’t afford to have him on the court. That kind of sums up Portland’s season.
Moe Harkless and Allen Crabbe were the good versions of themselves tonight. Moe found opportunities within the offense en route to 10 points and 9 rebounds on 5/9 shooting. Crabbe was aggressive and shot the ball well. He still doesn’t bring much other than scoring but it’s hard to argue with 18 points off the bench.
Everyone else struggled. They got little from Meyers Leonard, Noah Vonleh, and Shabazz Napier. It’s just tough when you have almost 45 minutes a game without much output. Collectively, the tallied 9 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists. Noah Vonleh was particularly out of control tonight. In 12 minutes, he managed to pick up 5 fouls.
Links and Such
With all their injuries, Liberty Ballers must have been happy with their team’s fight. Philadelphia played hard all night.
Will the winning streak continue? Find out Saturday when Portland takes on the Washington Wizards at 7pm.
Dave will have a write-up about Blazer’s Edge Night coming on Friday. Also you can check him out on Rip City Radio 620 AM with Chad Doing from 3-5pm. A whole two hours of Dave and Chad on air talking Blazers? What more could you want?