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Nurkic Needs To Step Up to Defeat The Lakers

The Blazers big man performed well in the seeding games. What does he need to do to succeed against Los Angeles?

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Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers - Game One Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Prior to the NBA’s restart inside the Disney World bubble, Jusuf Nurkic had played just five playoff games in his career. In those five contests, he averaged 9.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks on 47.6% shooting – not the numbers Portland Trail Blazers fans are used to seeing from him these days.

What fans are accustomed to, even after returning from his leg injury, is Nurkic posting 18 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks with remarkable steadiness in the bubble. But the two postseason games against the Los Angeles Lakers haven’t had the same consistency.

In Game One, he collected 10 points and 10 rebounds in the first quarter alone and finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds. But in Game Two, when most of Portland’s players underperformed, he only collected nine points and eight rebounds. Notably, he’s tallied just five total assists so far.

The Lakers tout one of the biggest rosters in the league because Anthony Davis doesn’t want to play center. With him at power forward and one of Dwight Howard or Javale McGee on the floor for much of the 48 minutes, Nurkic has plenty of physical competition in the paint.

As a result, his shooting, rebounding and playmaking become that much more important. So far, none are quite at the level they need to be at for Portland to potentially complete the upset.

Despite a solid 16-point outing the first game, Nurkic is shooting a combined 8/21 from the field in the series. He’s been purposefully left open on the perimeter and fired away, attempting five three-pointers – making two of them – and several midrange jumpers. Those shots are fun to watch when they drop, but historically, they’re not high percentage looks for the big man.

On the other end, the Lakers have compensated for poor outside shooting by crashing the offensive glass. They’ve outrebounded Portland 31-15 through the first two contests, leading to far too many second-chance opportunities. Those aren’t all Nurkic’s fault, but especially in Game Two, he looked a step slow to grab rebounds and allowed Davis to get himself going early via putbacks.

The most crucial aspect of Nurkic’s game that needs improvement to compete with the Lakers is his playmaking. LA didn’t hedge or blitz Damian Lillard as hard as expected in Game One, but they did bring out a second defender more frequently in Game Two to disrupt him before initiating the offense.

Lillard recognized the Lakers trying to funnel him into certain spots on the floor and had this to say after the game:

“I just kept hearing them yell out ‘box, box, box,’ and a guy would come, and they would try to keep me in a boxed-in area...I think I’m going to have to give it up and trust the pass out to score and make them pay for it.”

When the double team comes, Nurkic often positions himself at the free throw line or elbow extended to be a release valve. And if he does set a screen amidst the double team, he still serves as the release valve on a short roll, winding up with the ball in a similar spot. so that pass out Lillard referred to will most commonly go to his trusted big man.

Where Nurkic catches these passes provides more space but less momentum than he’s used to having as a roller. As such, he will need to attack the basket off the dribble and simultaneously survey the wings and corners to find open teammates spotting up or cutting. Nurkic, although a much-improved passer, doesn’t find his teammates with as much success when moving. He’s a stationary passer.

If he doesn’t pass out to the wings or get to the rim, he’ll be in a dead zone on the court. Last year, Nurkic shot 38.6% in the non-restricted area paint; among 31 centers who attempted more than 100 such shots that season, he ranked 25th.

Even if wings like CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. shoot below their season averages off Nurkic’s kickouts, the offense’s points per possession rises significantly as they’re attempting threes instead of twos. From an analytical standpoint, that swap benefits Portland’s offense significantly.

Nurkic’s passing also eases the load on Lillard and McCollum to score off the dribble. The center can initiate the offense at the top of the arc by finding his guards slaloming through screens for a three-point try or cut to the rim. That’s the type of stationary passing he’s more comfortable executing, and the first quarter of Game One illustrated the success that style of offense can have.

Nurkic was arguably Portland’s second-most important player during the seeding games – his contributions were absolutely necessary for the team to reach the playoffs. That remains the truth in this first round series, potentially even more so with how much LA relies on rebounding and points in the paint. If he can improve his shot selection, stay strong on the glass, and find open teammates when the Lakers sell out on Lillard, the Blazers will be in good shape.