Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic went down with a sickening left-leg fracture Monday night in Portland’s double-overtime victory over the Brooklyn Nets. I should be writing about the thrilling win, the Blazers clinching the playoffs, and above all Blazer’s Edge sending over 2000 kids to see the game on our annual Blazer’s Edge Night. Instead, we have to reflect on Nurkic’s season-ending injury.
In case you ever doubted it, the basketball gods are assholes.
I’ll repeat something here that I tweeted during the game. When something like this happens, the game outcome doesn’t matter. Neither does the season, really. The center...and ALL YOUR HOPE...is pinned on the player recovering as completely and quickly as possible.
I don’t care about win-loss record, or playoff implications right now. The Blazers still need to win as many games as they can. Their hopes of making significant noise in the playoffs are effectively shattered. Those things are mostly self-evident. Now that we’ve said them, we can put them behind the affirmation that Jusuf Nurkic the person matters. That dwarfs everything else.
The injury is especially cruel not just because the Blazers had legitimate aspirations of fighting for the Conference Finals, but because Nurkic himself was playing so well. This was his season! Everything anybody could have wished, he produced. His stats were solid, his focus and concentration steady, and his role in Portland’s success obvious.
People mentioned Nurkic alongside Damian Lillard as a hub of Portland’s offense, but he was also the grease that allowed Portland’s defense to roll onward. His contributions were so important that the single biggest move the Blazers made all year was to get someone who played like him to fill out the second unit. And the main criticism of Enes Kanter’s otherwise-admirable showing in Portland has been, “He’s a good rebounder and scorer, but he can’t defend like Nurk.” If the Blazers were a band, Nurkic would have been the more cowbell they needed.
Lillard stands alone as Portland’s MVP-level superstar. Take him out of the equation, and no other loss could have ripped the heart out of this city and its team worse than losing Nurkic tonight did.
We are not showing video of the injury on this site. I understand curiosity. I also understand that google searches for “Jusuf Nurkic video” will go through the roof for the next 18 hours. I still refuse to participate in injury porn. That compound-fractured leg is attached to a real, live human being with hopes and dreams and nerves. How do you reduce a life to its component body parts?
I was there live. I saw it. You want to know what it was like? The majority of the people around me were numb and sick at heart. If you’re a Portland Trail Blazers fan, you should have had enough of centers lying rigid on the court, scrambling backwards as if to divorce themselves from their own lower extremities, fists pounding futilely on the floor. That’s not how you want to remember the 2018-19 version of Jusuf Nurkic. You want to remember the swooping blocks, the effective footwork, and the sweet passing out of the block. You also want to remember the eagerness, the way he played for, and among, his teammates every night.
You don’t need to see the moment to understand how unfair this is. Sam Bowie’s injuries were tragic; Greg Oden’s were frustrating. This injury to Nurkic, though hopefully of lesser lasting impact than the other two, just seems mean. A guy gets to bloom for a minute, then gets chopped down in the high part of spring.
This injury will have significant effects for more people than Nurkic. This team will never be assembled in the same way again. They cannot re-sign their recent acquisitions. They have decisions to make about incumbents with short-term contracts too. We knew they wouldn’t get a second chance at making a run at it with this roster. We didn’t know they wouldn’t even get a first chance.
We can still draw inspiration from a couple places, though. Nurkic is young. Paul George suffered a horrific leg injury in the run-up to the last Olympics and he not only recovered, he’s playing at an all-league level.
Even if the team looks different when Nurkic returns, we did get to see it for a moment. Since the trade deadline, we’ve finally understood what Terry Stotts could do with a Lillard-led team with skill, talent, and reasonable depth. For the last two weeks I’ve been telling people that this is the best incarnation of the Blazers since 2000. This is what it was supposed to be, and it was beautiful.
Let’s not oversell it; the Blazers still needed to hope somebody beat the Warriors on the way to the Conference Finals. But short of Golden State, the Blazers could have stood proudly with anyone in the Western Conference. They would have been a coin flip with most of the good teams in a playoffs series, a tough out for their worst matchups. Considering where they’ve been and the twsited road they took to get there, that was something to be proud of. And Jusuf Nurkic was at the heart of it.
That cannot be taken away. Nor can the hopes for Nurkic’s recovery and participation with future incarnations of the team.
Nor is Portland’s season over yet! They won’t quit. There’s still hope they will put up a fight in the post-season. This was just one of those heartbreaking moments that wasn’t about the team changing as much as the whole environment changing around them with one awful blow. Over the next few weeks, the Blazers will still practice, play the same schedule, and work towards the same goals they’ve had since September. Those things just won’t mean as much as they did with Nurkic on the floor.
Get well soon, Bosnian Beast. And thank you for one hell of a season.