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Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic: A Friendship of Respect, Screens and Points

On Damian Lillard’s big night, his longtime friend kept the party alive.

Charlotte Hornets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s a Portland Trail Blazers partnership that’s spanned nearly six seasons, thousands of points and “millions of screens.” Damian Lillard, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and one of the game’s greatest pick-and-roll point guards. And Jusuf Nurkic, the 7-foot, hulking center from Bosnia who’s helped unlock Lillard’s space and talents.

But beyond the on-court partnership, it’s a friendship, one that Lillard calls “true.” During last night’s postgame ceremony honoring Lillard’s franchise scoring record, Blazers broadcaster Lamar Hurd recalled this Nurkic quote from a few years back: “Damian Lillard is the best thing that has happened to me in my life.”

“I think the fact that he said it publicly, I don’t think that any man would say anything like that unless they really felt that way,” Lillard said in last night’s postgame presser.

In a lot of ways, Nurkic may feel indebted to Lillard for catalyzing his career. He came to Portland in the spring of 2017 at just 22, after falling out of the Denver Nuggets’ rotation and good graces, and immediately inserted himself as Lillard’s starting center for years to come.

“[When] you come into a situation where you’re embraced the way we’ve embraced him,” Lillard said. “I’m sure he does feel like [being traded to Portland] was a huge thing for him in his life.”

From “Nurk Fever” to more tepid moments. From gruesome injury to recovery, from a pandemic to a roster shakeup, Nurkic and Lillard have stood together through it all. The 28-year-old Nurkic now stands as Lillard’s longest-tenured teammate still on the roster and has played a sizable role in the all-time great’s latest accomplishment.

Last night, he showed his appreciation for his friend by returning the favor at a crucial time.

On Lillard’s home coronation for passing Clyde Drexler’s 18,040-point mark — a feat he accomplished last week in Oklahoma City — it appeared the postgame ceremony would be soured by defeat, again. Lillard couldn’t find his stroke and the Blazers were getting run out of their own building by the lowly Charlotte Hornets.

That is until Nurkic busted through with a massive second half, all part of a dominant 28-point, 15-rebound, 6-assist performance (5-7 3PT) to ensure a 124-113 win and smooth festivities.

“I was just trying to make this the easiest celebration for Dame,” Nurkic said. “… I don’t want to be having a moment like this and a loss, it just doesn’t feel right. That was my main mindset tonight: We just need a win.”

To appreciate the Nurkic on-court experience over the last five years is to understand it comes with ups and downs. He’s a polarizing player, dominant at stretches as a unique center who can screen, anchor the paint, drop Sabonis-like dimes and bully defenders with drop-steps. Then he’s maddening for spells when he appears unconditioned, turns the ball over or attempts finesse finishes, rather than utilize that great power. Emotionally, he’s the spirit animal for the team and Moda crowd, a mega-boost to Portland’s ceiling when he’s dialed in, but a sizable counterweight when he’s slumping.

The Charlotte game was a great example of the Nurkic Phenomenon.

In that trying first half, Nurkic coughed up three turnovers and wasn’t much of a factor as the Hornets scored 67 points and led by as many as 14. Then in the second half, the Bosnian Beast came to play: 21 points, 10 rebounds and a team-high plus-20 as Portland held Charlotte to just 46 points, won the rebound battle and flipped near-disaster into an undramatic win.

It was a highlight reel of the normal Nurk nastiness — stout interior protection, bruising backdowns to force fouls and long outlets and backdoor passes.

“That’s that Nurk Fever,” Lillard said after surveying the postgame stat sheet.

But there was also a new trick. He knocked down a career-high five three-pointers, all in a row. It was the most emphatic display of Nurkic’s newfound accuracy from beyond the arc (46.4% for the season). After his third make, he gave an MJ shrug and drew heat check anticipation from the crowd the rest of the game. The marksmanship is a development that Billups said “adds a different dimension to our offense.”

In that second half, Nurkic pieced together his tantalizing talent and potential to show just how valuable he can be to Portland.

“I think when Nurk is aggressive and just focused on his game and not looking for contact and wanting to draw fouls and stuff like that, he’s a handful,” Lillard said. “... Performances like this is when you know his mind is right and I’m always on his case about that, and that alone, because I know when his mind is right he can really be great for our team and tonight that’s what he was.”

Last night’s postgame ceremony started with a career highlight video of Lillard shown on the jumbotron. The entire Blazers roster sat together on the scorer’s table to watch it. Lillard sat next to Nurkic, who took pride in sharing the moment.

“These moments are special for everybody,” Nurkic said. “I’ve been fortunate to be [here] the last six seasons and understand how much he does, regardless [of whether it’s] on the floor [or] off the floor.”

At one point, Nurkic said something to Lillard — later revealed to be a comment about Lillard’s fake earrings his rookie year — and they burst out laughing. Maybe the old earrings contributed to why Lillard said he “felt old” during the ceremony. He’s grown a lot during his 10 years in Portland (having three children probably helps with that). Nurkic has grown a lot, too. He’s an elder statesman now, increasingly evident over the last two seasons, as he’s taken more of a leadership role since last year’s roster overhaul. He can be seen tugging teammates aside for in-game huddles about defensive rotations, calmly handling postgame pressers after tough losses and sacrificing touches to make way for Jerami Grant.

“Nurk, he’s such a good teammate, man,” Billups said. “He really cares and he really wants to win.”

Through the ups and downs of their half-decade partnership, Lillard said his support of Nurkic has never wavered. He believes that’s why his teammate holds him in such high regard, but he also said it’s a level of support and respect that goes both ways.

“I can tell that he’s wanting the best for me and I think he knows that my intention is wanting the best for him,” Lillard said. “... I think him caring about my success and screening for me and always [being] in my ear about what he thinks I could do to be helping myself...has had an impact on me.”

That’s why 18,041 points is a record Nurkic can take pride in, too.