After a start to the season when his mind, and his body, have not been right, Trail Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic says he is back on the right track.
And he says teammates Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are to thank for his turnaround.
Spurred by encouragement from McCollum, and play-calling from Lillard, Nurkic on Thursday scored 27 points to help the Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 113-110 at the Moda Center.
It was his second consecutive strong performance after a puzzling start to the season that saw Nurkic battle turnovers and foul trouble while missing a bevy of close-range shots. Through it all, Nurkic has complained of what he says are injuries to his back, elbow, ankle and throat.
But on Thursday, he looked and played closer to the player who became a Portland cult hero last spring after his arrival in a trade with Denver.
“I just forgot how much fun I could have out there,’’ Nurkic said Thursday. “I just play my game, and enjoy the game, and follow the rules … Dame and CJ help me out with this.’’
Lillard and McCollum said there was never a come-to-Jesus conversation with the 7-foot center. Instead, both said their work was more a constant massaging of Nurkic’s mindset.
“A lot of stuff with Nurk,’’ Lillard explained, “is mental.’’
McCollum was the most direct. After Nurkic began the season in frustrating fashion, missing several layins and point-blank shots, McCollum said he told Nurkic to remember the emotion he played with at the end of last season, when he had 33 points and 15 rebounds against Denver and 19 points and 11 rebounds against Houston.
“I just tell him ‘Be yourself,’’’ McCollum said. “I think that’s the thing he has to understand. We don’t need him to be anything besides himself. I always tell him ‘ I will never tell you not to shoot. Just be strong.’
“Sometimes he is so finessed and so skilled he does those little lackadaisical layups and we are lookin’ like, ‘Bro, just go dunk. Go dunk the ball.’ Be Nurk against Houston when you were angry. Or Nurk against the Denver Nuggets when you feel that rage. I said be that all the time,’’ McCollum said.
Lillard, who developed an instant rapport with Nurkic after he was traded to Portland in February, said he could sense Nurkic’s frustration building over the past couple weeks. So Lillard took even more care to engage with the big man.
“We have been texting over and over. Talking. On the plane, when I watch (film) I would show him things he could do to make the game easier for him,’’ Lillard said.
The encouragement and reminders from the two stars came to a head on Wednesday in Utah, when Lillard made a vow to Nurkic.
“I told him – ‘I’m coming to you; if you go to the block, I’m going to throw you the ball … I’m going to get you going,’’’ Lillard said.
Nurkic against Utah had 19 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks and impacted the game on both ends, one of the bright spots in a night when the Blazers couldn’t close the door on the Jazz and lost in overtime.
On Thursday against the Lakers, Lillard and McCollum both utilized Nurkic heavily in pick-and-rolls, with Nurkic cutting hard to the basket and finishing regularly. He hit 12-of-20 shots and added a season-high five assists.
For the season, Nurkic is averaging 15.0 points and 7.8 rebounds while hitting 44.9 percent of his shots.
Interestingly, both Lillard and McCollum mentioned a point of emphasis in getting Nurkic more involved offensively, which helped the big man become more engaged defensively.
“When you get the ball to the big fella,’’ McCollum said Thursday, “he is going to play better on both ends.’’
Added Lillard: “For us to be the team we need to be, we need that balance. We need him to be who we know he is capable of being and it’s my responsibility and CJ’s responsibility to be aware of it when he goes possessions and doesn’t touch the ball. And understanding the more we get out of him on the offensive end the more we are going to get out of him on the defensive end.’’
Nurkic, who went sideways in Denver when things didn’t go his way, has gushed since he arrived in Portland about his relationship with his new backcourt – especially Lillard. His appreciation for the duo goes beyond their on-the-court talent, he says, as he has welcomed their guidance and advice.
“We talk back and forth … it’s about focus,’’ Nurkic said. “CJ and Dame are a big part in what I do.’’
Now, it appears the duo has Nurkic focused and pointed in the right direction. And Nurkic says he will fight through those nagging back, elbow, ankle and throat issues, and instead focus on having fun again.
“He has to understand: We will be as good as he is,’’ McCollum said. “That’s the honest-to-God truth; As good as he is is how good we will be as a team.’’