Something has gotten into the Portland Trail Blazers in the past little while. The doom and gloom of their disappointing season is nowhere to be found, replaced by a sudden onset of optimism and curious amounts of laughter and joy. Energy and excitement is everywhere -- even reporters have stopped asking the players about their 26th-ranked defense.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts diagnosed the condition simply on Thursday, per The Oregonian: “Nurkic fever. Why not?”
Stotts said that before their game against the Philadelphia 76ers last night; since then, the fever has spread rapidly. Nurkic, no hyperbole, in the 114-108 win, finishing with 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists, six blocks and two steals. All of those numbers, save for the steals, were career highs.
After the game, according to The Oregonian, backup center Meyers Leonard decided to “twirl around” before leaving the locker room -- he had an announcement to make to anybody who was listening. “For anyone wondering: He’s really good,” Leonard said, gesturing toward Nurkic. “Jesus Christ!”
For Portland, Nurkic’s presence has changed everything. It has won four straight games and five of eight since his arrival, and it is only one game back of the eighth-place Denver Nuggets in the standings. In the 205 minutes that Nurkic has been on the court, the Blazers have outscored opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions. That absurd number might not be sustainable, but there is a real chance that he will push them past his former team and into the postseason.
His former team, by the way, might be stunned to see him playing this way. In Denver this season, Nurkic took some of the same criticisms Jahlil Okafor has taken in Philadelphia -- disinterested on defense, not a floor spacer, reluctant passer. It was jarring to see him not only dominate Okafor, but look like a completely different kind of player. He bullied people in the post, but he did just about everything else modern big men are supposed to do, too.
Rejuvenated, Nurkic is moving his feet on defense, pursuing rebounds relentlessly and setting solid screens. He is relishing his opportunity to be a starter again, making multiple-effort plays and talking trash to more experienced players. All the promise he showed as a rookie two years ago is back, but he’s more polished. Teammates have been raving about his high basketball IQ and how he makes everybody else better. There aren’t many more compelling players to watch in the league right now.
The most enlightening part about his play in Portland is that he’s apparently an amazing passer. Near the end of the first half against the Sixers, he caught a pass outside the 3-point line, palmed the ball with his right hand, then looped a perfect pass over two defenders to create an open layup for Moe Harkless. Assuming Mason Plumlee’s former role as a facilitator, Nurkic is making Blazers fans think of Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis. There was a certain Nuggets center drawing those kind of comparisons for his court vision earlier this season, but it wasn’t Nurkic.
None of this means Denver needs to be crushed for trading him. Perhaps it even makes coach Mike Malone’s failed experiment pairing Nurkic with Nikola Jokic together at the beginning of the season more understandable -- if Nurkic was playing like this, it probably could have worked. Portland’s front office, though, comes away from this looking brilliant. It’s usually just about impossible to acquire 22-year-olds with his combination of size and talent, and general manager Neil Olshey managed to do it while gaining a first-round pick in the deal, too. The team’s long-term outlook is significantly sunnier than it was a month ago.
Olshey clearly remembered how much potential Nurkic showed before tearing his left patellar tendon and made a bet on the big man’s ability to realize it with the Blazers. This is paying off already, and it could be the difference between them making the postseason or not. Portland will host the Nuggets on March 28 at the Moda Center, and you should consider circling that date on your calendar. Nurkic surely has.