Damian Lillard's unabashed 35-foot bombs. CJ McCollum playing through a broken back. Carmelo Anthony's emphatic resurrection into basketball relevancy. There have been plenty of reasons to fall in love with the Portland Trail Blazers since they ripped off a 6-2 record in seeding games to grab the No. 8 seed, took down the Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in game, then rode that momentum to an impressive 100-93 Game 1 win over the top-seeded Lakers in Tuesday's playoff opener.
Remarkably enough, however, those storylines might pale in comparison to that of Bosnian big man Jusuf Nurkic, who is 17 months removed from breaking his left leg in gruesome fashion during a game in March of 2019. As you can imagine, the rehab for such an injury is long and arduous, but Nurkic stepped on the court for the first bubble game and shockingly looked as if he'd never left.
He averaged 17.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and four assists and two blocks in the seeding games, but perhaps his most impressive stat is the 31.6 minutes per game. Nurkic has set the tone early, putting up 15 points and 17 rebounds in the first half alone in the play-in win against the Grizzlies. Then on Tuesday he became the first player since Shaquille O'Neal nearly 20 years ago to score 10 or more points and grab 10 or more rebounds in the first quarter of a playoff game.
To get a sense of how unprecedented Nurkic's impactful return is, let's take a look at three current players who have suffered similar debilitating injuries: Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward (broken ankle in 2017), Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo (ruptured quad tendon in 2019) and Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George (broken leg in 2014). As you can see, their first 10 games back from injury didn't go nearly as well as they have for Nurkic, who was thrust directly into heavy minutes in must-win games.
|First 10 games||Days Missed||MIN||PTS||REB||AST||FG%|
This isn't to disparage those other players in any way. It simply shows that what Nurkic is doing is not normal -- not even close.
Due to the COVID-19 hiatus, Nurkic had a lot more time to rehab than he expected (he was nearing a return when the season was shut down in March), but that works both ways. Yes, he had long to heal and rehab, but he also added four-plus extra months of accumulated rust. He doesn't rely on speed and quickness as much as the other players on the list, but he has a lot more weight in his 7-foot, 280-pound frame supported by his surgically repaired leg. Of course Nurkic can be effective by employing bully-ball tactics and using his size to box out opponents, but he's also been surprisingly nimble at times given his current state of rehab and conditioning. Watch how he gracefully avoids a charge during the Blazers' play-in win over the Grizzles to find McCollum for a corner 3:
How many times have you seen a big man plow into the defender and pick up an offensive foul in that exact same scenario? It may not be a 360 dunk, but a play like this requires a tremendous amount of athleticism and body control, which is surprising to see after just a handful of games following nearly 500 days without competition.
In addition to his inside presence, Nurkic's facilitating ability has been essential to Portland's offense in the bubble. He's a monster in dribble hand-off situations, swallowing up defenders and forcing switches, and he's also a slick and dangerous passer out of the high post. With defenses being forced to play Lillard tightly more than 30 feet from the basket, he and Nurkic have absolutely picked teams apart with back-door buckets that wouldn't be possible without Nurkic's vision, timing and precision:
While the Blazers have been borderline atrocious defensively since coming into the bubble, Nurkic has prevented second shots by finishing defensive possessions with rebounds. When you add in his offensive rebounding ability, Nurkic has made a huge impact on the glass for the Blazers since returning. Before the hiatus, Portland was 21st in the league in rebounding percentage, per NBA.com. With Nurkic in the lineup, that moved up to ninth during seeding games.
On its own, Nurkic's immediate return to form would be remarkable. But he's also done all of this while dealing with the illness and consequent death of his grandmother, Hana, who he said was one of the closest people to him. Nurkic learned of his grandmother's death from COVID-19 just hours before the play-in game against the Grizzlies, and understandably considered not playing.
"I think I didn't want to play," Nurkic said after his 22-point, 21-rebound performance. "She made me play, I guess."
After narrowly surviving a must-win game over the Nets to clinch the No. 8 seed, Blazers coach Terry Stotts showed his team a clip of Nurkic diving on the ground for a loose ball, calling it a play that "decided the game." It speaks to the emotional lift that Nurkic has brought to the Blazers in addition to his on-court contributions. Lillard and McCollum are strong leaders, but aren't as demonstrative or vocal as Nurkic on the court. There have been times throughout the bubble, starting with the very first scrimmage game, when Nurkic has seemingly raised his team's energy with an emphatic scream after a big play.
Portland just looks more confident with its big man back in the fold, and the way he powered through grief and shock after personal tragedy to help earn a playoff berth perfectly exemplifies his emotional impact on the team.
"He was amazing," Lillard said after the win over Memphis. "A special performance by him dealing with his grandmother passing and to be able to come out here and have that kind of effort, and be that focused on a basketball game when he had something much more important on his mind and on his heart, that just speaks volumes on his character."