Jusuf Nurkic

Lessons in leadership: How Damian Lillard is mentoring Jusuf Nurkic

Lessons in leadership: How Damian Lillard is mentoring Jusuf Nurkic

When the Trail Blazers emerged from the halftime locker room last week during a dreadful performance in Sacramento, all but one of the players headed to the court to warm up.

Jusuf Nurkic, the team’s young and promising center, was the only one to avoid the court, instead plopping himself on the bench, his warm-up hoodie snug over his head.

From the court, team captain Damian Lillard took notice, and walked to Nurkic on the bench. It had been a rough half for the Blazers, and an even tougher outing for Nurkic, who at that point had more turnovers than points.

Leaning in, Lillard tousled Nurkic’s hoodie, then took a seat next to him. What would follow is another layer in what is a powerful and unique relationship between two of the team’s pillars.

“I know what it’s like to be young and counted on,’’ Lillard later explained.

The relationship is powerful in how it has impacted Nurkic.

“Damian Lillard,’’ Nurkic said, “is the best thing that has happened to me in my life.’’

And the relationship is unique in that Lillard’s mentorship is coming from an interesting perspective. When Lillard first joined the Blazers, he said he looked to star LaMarcus Aldridge for guidance and support, but was left to figure it out on his own.

It’s why Lillard describes this undertaking with Nurkic as “different” from any of his other endeavors with teammates. This one is deeply personal.

“It’s going to sound crazy,’’ Lillard said, “but it’s almost what I wish I had with LaMarcus.’’

**

The awkward Lillard-Aldridge dynamic has long been rumored and insinuated, but never openly discussed like Lillard did this week.

Lillard says the two never had a problem, and that Aldridge has already heard everything he says in this article. Lillard’s point in bringing up his experience with Aldridge is that it helped shape his approach in how to mentor Nurkic.

“Me and LaMarcus had a good relationship. We never had a single argument. We really got along,’’ Lillard said. “I’m just saying the stuff I want to go out of my way to do for (Nurkic), is the stuff I wish I got from LaMarcus.’’

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Aldridge’s reticence never bothered Lillard; the more he was around Aldridge, the more he understood him as an introvert, who was more comfortable leading by example than through encouragement or inspiration.

But at the same time, Lillard couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like in his early NBA years to have guidance and assurance that he was on the right path.

“I wish it was like more of a brotherhood, more of a line of communication, with me as young player and him as an All-Star,’’ Lillard said.

There was always an unmistakable unease around Aldridge and Lillard, mostly created by Aldridge’s jealousy of the attention and adulation showered upon Lillard by the fanbase and the franchise. Lilllard, who is as perceptive as he is personable, admittedly “walked on eggshells” around Aldridge, acutely aware of the elder’s sensitivity, and in hopes to avoid “stepping on his toes.”

“It wasn’t his personality (to reach out),’’ Lillard said. “But as a younger player, I came into the league wishing … and thinking he was going to take me under his wing, like his lil’ bro.”

One of those times was when Lillard was in his third year. It was the playoffs, in Memphis, and the Trail Blazers guard was struggling mightily against Mike Conley and the vaunted Grizzlies defense.

By that time, still young at 25, he had established himself as a two-time All-Star, a playoff hero, and one of the pillars of the franchise. But in this playoff series, the Grizzlies' pressure, as well as his performance, cause some rumblings inside of himself. Either Aldridge didn't sense it, or he figured Lillard had it covered, but there was no emotional support from Aldridge.

“There were times when I needed it, it just didn’t happen,’’ Lillard said. “It didn’t make me no less of a player. I figured it out. But it would have calmed things in my mind in games.’’

Lillard said in his heart, his confidence never wavered. He believed in himself and he knew he always found ways to succeed, and he figured he would again in that series. Still, he admitted he cast a hopeful eye to Aldridge, looking for assurance, advice, encouragement, an invitation to dinner ... anything. But Aldridge never bit.

“I had confidence in myself, but I wanted (Aldridge) to be like, ‘Man, let’s go eat. You are going to be good. You are going to be an All-Star,’’’ Lillard said. “I wanted him to talk to me like that … but (he didn’t).’’

The Blazers lost that Memphis series, and months later, Aldridge left the Blazers to sign a free agent contract with San Antonio. After Aldridge left, Lillard knew it was his time to lead, and he knew his leadership would be much different than Aldridge’s approach.

So when Nurkic arrived in a trade last February, stinging from his treatment in Denver, and thirsting for affirmation, Lillard saw shades of his younger self.

So he gave Nurkic what that young Lillard wanted. He gave him his attention. His knowledge. His support.

“I just know what it might be like to not have that,’’ Lillard said.

**

That night in Sacramento, when Lillard approached Nurkic at halftime and tousled his head while offering encouragement, didn’t end well for the Blazers or Nurkic. The lowly Kings beat Portland 86-82 while Nurkic scored just four points on 2-for-7 shooting.

But the night wasn’t over with the halftime pep talk, or the final buzzer. 

“I talked to (Lillard) the whole way back on the plane,’’ Nurkic said. “The whole flight.’’

Nurkic said they talked about the Kings game. His early season struggles. What the team was going through, and what Nurkic needed to do moving forward. He said their talk was a blend of encouragement and criticism.

It has been that way from the start, Lillard both embracing Nurkic while also establishing a firm line of accountability.

In their first meeting as teammates after the February trade, Lillard in the locker room provided Nurkic with his cell phone number and a team-wide directive.

“The first thing I remember him saying is: ‘We don’t make excuses here, man,’’’ Nurkic said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I need that.’’’

Nurkic came to Portland with a somewhat sullied reputation as a pouter and malcontent with bouts of laziness. Nurkic said, if anything, he was usually quick to make excuses.

“It’s a bad habit, and habits are hard to change,’’ Nurkic said. “Probably the hardest thing to change in life is habits. If you have a bad one, it can stick with you. After he told me that, I really focused on that.’’

After Nurkic took Portland by storm last spring, and helped vault the Blazers into a late run into the playoffs, he has experienced an uneven start to this season. Some games he looks like one of the NBA’s elite centers, and others he looks unpolished and undisciplined.

Through the ups and downs, Lillard has been able to study Nurkic and know the right buttons to push.

Nurkic says he texts Lillard often, and earlier in the season after a rocky opening trip, Lillard could sense through those messages that Nurkic was experiencing some doubt. Lillard put him at ease, telling him he would make sure he was more involved in the offense. He also told him to stop over-thinking the game.

“He reminded me it’s just a game,’’ Nurkic said. "That it's supposed to be fun.''

The next night, Nurkic played freely and was dominant in a win over the Lakers, finishing with 28 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. After the game, he credited his resurgence to having fun again, and thanked Lillard and CJ McCollum for helping guide him through his lulls.

It has not been all hugs and pats on the back, though.

When Nurkic was forced to the bench just 1:24 into the game after picking up two fouls at home against Memphis, Lillard spit daggers.

Nurkic chuckled at the memory.

“After I got the two quick fouls, he was (lowers his voice to mimic Lillard) ‘Come on Nurk, man. You have to be smarter than this,’’’ Nurkic said. “He comes at me hard. Which is good.’’

Later, in a home game against Brooklyn, a tiring Nurkic blew a defensive assignment, and Lillard snapped at him.

“He started telling me ‘why this, and well that, and he this …,’’ Lillard remembered. “He started coming with excuses and I told him, ‘I ain’t trying to hear that (expletive). Do what you are supposed to do. We depend on you.’’’

And during Monday’s win at Memphis, Lillard stood in the middle of a third-quarter timeout huddle to demonstratively lecture Nurkic, holding up coach Terry Stotts’ address to the team.

Nurkic says he welcomes that type of feedback because he trusts Lillard and knows he has his – and the team’s – best interests at heart.

“There’s no lying. That’s the best part about him,’’ Nurkic said. “He’s straight and he will tell you. For me, that’s like a dream come true. To have a superstar in the league as a leader, a friend and a teammate – all of those ways – it leads me to be a better person, better teammate and better player.’’

**

The first time Lillard and Nurkic met, it was not friendly.

It was last November, at the Moda Center, when Nurkic was with the Nuggets, and the two had a slight dustup on the court.

The two teams had played the week before in Denver, and after Lillard led a late comeback that included the game-winner, he made a passing judgment on what was then Denver’s foreign tandem of big men, Nurkic and Nikola Jokic.

“These two big dudes in Denver,’’ Lillard remembers thinking, “they might be soft a little bit.’’

But on this night in the Moda Center, Nurkic was fouled by Blazers center Mason Plumlee. As Nurkic went to the free throw line, Lillard went to talk to Plumlee, and his path crossed Nurkic. The Bosnian center nudged Lillard, who squared and pushed Nurkic in the chest.

“He bumped me, and I pushed him, and we said something to each other,’’ Lillard said.

The player he thought was soft left an impression.

 “I remember thinking, ‘Ah, this dude … there’s a little something to him,’’’ Lillard said.

Three months later, Nurkic was walking through the Blazers’ locker room doors for the first time. He locked eyes with Lillard and tapped his wrist, aping Lillard’s signature “Dame Time” move.

“I had read what people said about him, that he had a bad attitude … but when we first got him, he was like a big teddy bear,’’ Lillard said.

Soon, he saw how Nurkic played. It was unselfish and skilled. Then he saw how enthusiastic and positive Nurkic was as a teammate, often the first one off the bench to cheer a teammate.

 “After that first game in Utah, I thought ‘if we can get the most out of this guy, we could be pretty good,’’’ Lillard said.

So he watched him. And counseled him. And he noticed signs that reminded him of how he felt as a 23-year-old player. It sparked memories of the void he felt with Aldridge.

“With Nurk, I know how good he is, how good he could be, I know what he means to the team, so I don’t want to let that opportunity slip,’’ Lillard said. “I don’t want him to feel any less important. I don’t want to be like (sucks teeth) ‘he good enough he will figure it out.’

“I want to help him figure it out and let him know I’m a supporter,’’ Lillard said. “If I want the best for this team, I feel like it’s my job to support him, but also hold him accountable.’’

 Nurkic says he not only sees, and hears, Lillard’s leadership, he feels it.

“I definitely feel it. I definitely feel it. I’ve never had somebody like this, somebody like Dame,’’ Nurkic said. “He is there for me, no matter if I’m good or bad. He is an amazing person, and he will make me better.’’

Trail Blazers lucky that loss to Kings was by only four points

Trail Blazers lucky that loss to Kings was by only four points

My first thought Friday night after watching the Trail Blazers' latest debacle, that 86-82 loss at Sacramento, was that Portland had lost a game it should have won. But I must correct that appraisal ever so slightly. The Blazers lost to a team they should have beaten -- but they certainly deserved to lose the game.

In fact, it's difficult to figure out how they kept it so close. Check it out:

  • The Blazers shot 37 percent against a team not known for its defense.
  • The Blazers allowed one of the worst rebounding teams in the league to get a 44-44 draw on the boards.
  • The Blazers got only 12 points out of their starting front court.
  • The Blazers made only 7 of their 25 three-point shots.
  • The Blazers got only 22 points off their bench.
  • The Blazers turned the ball over 18 times.
  • The Blazers got only four points to go with four turnovers from Jusuf Nurkic.
  • The Blazers had ZERO (0) fastbreak points. Again.
  • The Blazers got only 28 points in the paint and made just 14 of their 38 shots in that area.

Just how in the world could you expect Portland to beat even one of the worst teams in the league with stuff like that going on?

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And I haven't even mentioned that wacky lineup Coach Terry Stotts put on the floor in the second quarter that featured no starters along with Jake Layman and Meyers Leonard. I have no problem with either of those guys playing, by the way -- but just not together and not without a couple of starters out there helping them get their shots. Leonard and Layman came into the game having played a total of just 17 minutes apiece for the ENTIRE SEASON. Not that I think either of those players can't help this team -- they can at least make shots, as can Pat Connaughton, a career .404 shooter from three-point range who isn't getting enough looks right now.

Within a week, the local squad has lost to Brooklyn and Sacramento. But at least they got those losses the old-fashioned way -- they deserved them.

So here we are, headed into a Saturday night rematch with the Kings. Portland should win, of course. But the Blazers better make sure they deserve to win.

Revenge? Nurkic took Jokic completely out of the game Monday

Revenge? Nurkic took Jokic completely out of the game Monday

The talk prior to Monday night's Trail Blazer matchup with Denver was whether it would be a revenge game for Jusuf Nurkic. The Portland center, a former Nugget, insisted it was not.

After watching the way the game played out, I'm certain Nurkic took great pleasure in the outcome of the contest and the way he dominated Denver center Nikola Jokic. But what happened Monday night -- the 99-82 Trail Blazer win -- had a lot more to do with Nurkic's knowledge of Jokic from all those practice sessions when they were teammates, than it did with simple revenge.

Nurkic manhandled Jokic. And it seemed as if he knew exactly what he was doing -- just as he did last season in their meeting. And what he was doing was being physical with his former teammate. He made it a rough night, which Jokic didn't seem to like. Jokic went 2-for-9 from the field and scored six points on the same day he was named the Western Conference's player of the week. Jokic finished the game lurking around the three-point line, looking like a man who had lost his way.

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Nurkic's dominance was the story of the night. The Nuggets' best player and a rising star in the NBA was taken completely out of the game. That was enough for not many to notice that Nurkic finished with a whopping seven of his team's 22 turnovers. I have no idea why Portland is suddenly experiencing an uptick in turnovers. It's certainly not because the team is forcing the ball upcourt on fastbreaks -- since the Blazers are at the bottom of the league in that department.

Since Coach Terry Stotts has been here, there's never been much attention paid to fastbreaks, partly, I'm sure, to keep the turnovers down. Bu,t if  you're going to turn the ball over anyway, you may as well try to run a little more. I would think. Those easy baskets off the break can perk a team up and can wake up an offense.

But it wasn't an issue Monday. Nurkic took care of that.

 

 

Jusuf Nurkic's fourth quarter benching is perplexing

Jusuf Nurkic's fourth quarter benching is perplexing

Of all the head-scratching things that happened on Friday during the Blazers’ 101-97 loss to Brooklyn – and there were plenty of them – none is more perplexing than the fourth-quarter benching of Jusuf Nurkic.

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Just a few reasons why the Trail Blazers lost to the Brooklyn Nets

Just a few reasons why the Trail Blazers lost to the Brooklyn Nets

Throughout the game Friday night, even while the Trail Blazers were suffering through a rough third quarter, my feeling was that Portland still had control of the game. No matter how poorly the Trail Blazers played, I couldn't envision them actually losing on their home floor to the Brooklyn Nets.

But they did.

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How does such a thing happen? Let me count the ways:

  • The most obvious thing first: Jusuf Nurkic didn't play during the final 11 minutes of the game. The Nets went with a small lineup so Portland obliged them by going small, too. In other words, the Nets dictated Portland's lineup throughout the fourth quarter. Nurkic was having a big game and that's the way the Nets lose -- by allowing the other team's big man to score virtually at will. This madness has got to stop. The league's fascination with "going small" is at epidemic proportions and it's fine if you have Draymond Green to defend small men or even Al-Farouq Aminu. But Aminu is out injured -- again -- and not available. And Green doesn't play for Portland. Yet, there the Blazers are, struggling on offense with less than their best lineup on the floor down the stretch of the game. Portland doesn't -- even on a platoon basis in the final minute -- turn the tables and make a little man try to defend Nurkic.
  • All of this happens, of course, because the Trail Blazers are so predictable on defense that teams just go to a high pick-and-roll late in games and wait for Portland;s inevitable switch on the pick. It happens every time and the opposing offense can get that big-on-small matchup whenever it wants. Heck, Portland even switches when there is no pick -- just players changing places. The Nets wanted it virtually every time down the court late in the game, leaving poor Davis, the lone big, to try to keep up with Russell. What would be wrong with changing coverages once in a while? Why not blitz the pick and roll and take the ball out of Russell's hands? I have no idea. But if you're going to just switch that pick-and-roll every time, you might as well leave Nurkic in the game because he'd be just as ineffective as Davis at guarding Russell.
  • Portland's starting guards were just 13-for-32 from the field. The Blazers, as a team, were only 7-for-20 from three-point range. That won't cut it. This team's ball and player movement continues to hit lulls during games. If that cannot be corrected, it's going to be a long season. The last thing I thought we'd be worried about this season with this team is the offense.
  • I'm getting a bit tired of mentioning this, but the Trail Blazers are last in the NBA in fast-break points per game. The only real reason for this to happen is that this team's coaching staff doesn't want it to run. Fast breaks don't happen by accident -- they have to be practiced. Obviously, a decision has been made that the risk (turnovers and rushed shots) is not worth the reward (easy, uncontested baskets). I just don't see how you survive in the NBA without at least an average number of fast breaks. Portland averages 4.6 points per game off the break. Golden State gets 27.2.

The Trail Blazers are better than a 6-6 team, given the schedule they've played so far. I expected much more than this and I think everyone connected with the team did, too

That Nurkic fever is turning into Nurkic enigma

That Nurkic fever is turning into Nurkic enigma

When looking back at the Trail Blazers' 98-97 loss to Memphis Tuesday night in Moda Center, it would be easy to take a look at the last shot by CJ McCollum. Or two or three empty possessions by Portland inside the final two minutes. You can place blame there, if you wish.

But for me, the enigma that is Jusuf Nurkic merits some blame, too.

This guy is a puzzle, for sure. Just when you think he is back (25 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and 11-for-14 shooting Sunday vs. Oklahoma City) to the level of last season's spectacular play, he checks in with a bewildering 3-for-9, six-point performance punctuated by foul trouble and just 20 minutes on the court. He didn't play during the final 3:34 of the game -- not because of foul trouble, though. I think Terry Stotts simply made the only move he could make -- removing Nurkic because he was ineffective and looking every bit like a player without confidence in what he was trying to do.

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Now remember, I'm the guy who originally got the "Nurkic Fever" ball rolling. I thought last season he played like the franchise center the Trail Blazers have been looking for during the last couple of decades. He played hard, played with passion and skill. I thought he was the answer.

But this season he's been more about questions than answers. The late, great original player personnel guru for the Trail Blazers, Stu Inman, used to shake his head about certain players and simply ask, "Who is he?" And that's the real question about Nurkic. Who, exactly, is he?

Is he last season's sensation or this season's disappointment? Can he be depended on? Can he be consistent? He's already earning a reputation as a flopper, to the point where he may not be able to get fouls called even when he really is fouled. He's had trouble finishing inside and hasn't yet justified those three-pointers he wants to shoot. He's committing some very foolish fouls and some careless turnovers. Tuesday night was truly a night when it appeared he just couldn't get out of his own way.

That's not the mark of a franchise player. Or even just a solid contributor. You have to wonder if we're now seeing some of the things the Denver Nuggets saw in him that made him available for Mason Plumlee.

But it's early in the year and he's probably never gone into a season with this much pressure to perform. It's not fair to count him out yet, particularly when you catch him on one of his good nights. He can still be electric when things are going well. He can still lift his team and the home crowd. The talent is there, for sure.

But it's up to him to bring it every night. Or at least be able to stay on the court.

 

 

Trail Blazers' key to success: What happens outside of Big Three?

Trail Blazers' key to success: What happens outside of Big Three?

As the Trail Blazers’ season settles in for the long winter’s grind, a progression that is crucial to the team’s success is worth keeping an eye on: How do the role players outside of the Big Three develop?

After the first 10 games, things appear to be settling for the Blazers. Damian Lillard is no longer struggling with his shot. Jusuf Nurkic has steadied after battling turnovers and foul trouble. And CJ McCollum is once again one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters.

But what to make of the rest of the Blazers?

Outside of Ed Davis, who has provided a consistent rebounding presence, the Blazers never quite know what they are going to get.

Maurice Harkless has been somewhat non-descript.  Al-Farouq Aminu is sidelined for at least a couple of weeks. Evan Turner, after a strong start, has become erratic. And against teams that don’t have Suns on the jersey, Pat Connaughton has been decidedly more miss than hit. 

“We play a lot, obviously through those three guys,’’ Harkless said of Lillard, Nurkic and McCollum. “So the rest of us have to just get in where we fit in. Some nights we are going to have big games, and some nights we are not. I think I’m still trying to figure out where I can be effective consistently.’’

Whether Harkless and the rest of the supporting cast figure that out will be perhaps the deciding factor in whether the Blazers are a fringe playoff team, or a contender for home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Of course, not all contributions are measured offensively. By design, much of the Blazers’ supporting cast strengths are rooted in defense.

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So even though Turner has been loose with the ball recently, he has been invaluable guarding everyone from Russell Westbrook to Blake Griffin. And both Harkless and Noah Vonleh might not shoot a lot, but their ability to switch on pick-and-rolls is priceless to an improved Blazers defense that holds the NBA’s fourth-best defensive rating through 10 games (99.9).

But the long-term key this season will be whether players can identify – and accept– their niche. It is perhaps the most unique trait possessed by upper echelon teams. It requires self awareness. A selflessness. And a maturity to sacrifice stats for success.

It is also easier said than done.

From what I know of this locker room, this Blazers team has those types of players. Turner has never cared about his stats, only about wins. Harkless said he came into the season wanting to embrace a bigger defensive role. And Connaughton and Vonleh are team-first guys who want to prove they belong.

Still, it is one thing to accept a role, and another thing to thrive or contribute in it. That’s where the stars are going to need to help.

It is important for the Big Three to realize how and when to recognize the supporting cast. Like in the second quarter on Sunday, with the Blazers up 28-24, Turner had Raymond Felton pinned on the block in a mismatch. McCollum, who was playing point guard, either ignored or didn’t see the advantage and went on to try and create something for himself. It resulted in a turnover.

Later, at the start of the third quarter, Nurkic had a window to throw a lob to Harkless, but at the last second decided against it and whipped a pass to Lillard that went out of bounds.

Little plays like that – where the stars are recognizing and feeding the supporting cast – can go a long way to making a team whole.

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes says Nurkic sold the Carmelo Anthony elbow like a pro wrestler.

The feeling runs deep when it comes to Blazers fans and Raymond Felton.

On NBC Sports Northwest's Talkin' Ball, we talked about the Big Three showing up.

The Oklahoman writes that the Thunder took issue with the officials after Sunday's loss.

The Oregonian has a recap of Sunday's win.

Nurkic "sold" Anthony's elbow to the face like a pro wrestler and it worked

Nurkic "sold" Anthony's elbow to the face like a pro wrestler and it worked

All in all, THAT game Sunday night was how I expected the Portland Trail Blazers to look this season.

The Blazers were clicking on both ends of the court, shooting 50 percent from the field for the first time this season and defending key Oklahoma City players well in their 103-99 win in Moda Center. Russell Westbrook went 10 for 25 from the floor, 3 for 10 from three-point range and just 2 for 7 from the foul line in a wacky performance -- it featured five straight free-throw misses by him -- unlike his usual MVP-quality show. The Blazers won the board battle 43-32 and held the Thunder to 44.9 percent shooting.

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All in all, it was a fine game, even though the home team walked a tightrope late in the final minutes, very nearly spoiling a nice effort with shaky ball handling.

Damian Lillard played his best game of the season with 36 points and 13 assists and was stellar down the stretch.

Jusuf Nurkic joined the party, too -- hitting 11 of 15 shots and scoring 25 to go with eight rebounds and two blocks.

And really, it makes a whole lot of difference when Nurkic is on his game. He's a difference maker at both ends of the court and the way he "sold" an elbow to his face from Carmelo Anthony in the third quarter was worthy of the best the WWE has to offer -- and it led to Anthony's ejection. Nurkic went down as if he was hit by a sledge hammer -- and maybe it felt that way.

Nurkic was motionless on the floor for about a minute after Anthony's right elbow caught his face on the way up for a shot that was originally ruled a foul on Nurkic and a potential three-point play for Anthony. But with Nurkic laid out on the floor, officials looked at replays and changed the call to a flagrant 2 on Anthony, who was ejected. It may have altered the outcome of the game.

Let me say I didn't think it was a Flagrant 2 foul and nobody deserves to be ejected for such a play. Anthony was in the act of shooting and trying to draw a foul in the process. Nurkic got a little too close for his own good and got smacked -- although how hard was open to debate. It may have been a brutal shot or a love tap, it was impossible to tell from the replays -- but Nurkic sold it like Ric Flair taking an elbow from Hulk Hogan and the officials bought into it.

Anyone who has played a lot of basketball will tell you that when you go up to block somebody's shot, you take a chance of getting caught with an elbow or arm to the face. It's just what happens. And when you do take that hit, it can often be called a foul on you. But whatever. This one wasn't.

And the Blazers got the benefit. I must say, it was a physical game -- as it always is when Portland hooks up with OKC.

And we got a glimpse of the potential of this Portland team against a group that is expected to be one of the best in the NBA.

A fun game punctuated by some controversy is a wonderful thing.

Tonight's Talkin' Ball Podcast:

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

If you look hard enough during the NBA season, you can find something amiss with each team, and these days a curious trend is developing within the Trail Blazers.

“Some troubles in the second (quarter), right?’’ Damian Lillard identified before a question was even finished.

Lillard’s instinct was partially correct. The Blazers have had notable struggles recently in the second quarter – being outscored 25-6 at home against Toronto and then being on the wrong end of a 37-25 quarter against the Lakers on Thursday.

Second quarter troubles have also surfaced at Milwaukee, when the Blazers lost a nine-point lead and went into halftime trailing 60-55, and at home against New Orleans when the Blazers lost a 13-point lead and trailed 48-47 at half.

All told, the Blazers this season have split their 10 second quarters.

So are the second-quarter bugaboos just a passing anomaly? Or is there something there?

Right now, it’s probably hard to say, but some stats indicate the second quarter troubles are rooted in more than just a couple bad outings.

For the season, the Blazers are allowing 45.8 percent shooting in the second quarter – three percent above what they allow the rest of the game – and that comes after Utah went 2-for-18 in the second quarter on Wednesday (and managed to be outscored only 19-17 by the Blazers).

Meanwhile, Portland is shooting just 39.2 percent in the second quarter – five percent below what they shoot the rest of the game.

Also, the Blazers’ two stars – Lillard and CJ McCollum – are struggling mightily in the second quarter. Lillard is shooting 8-for-30 (26.7 percent) and McCollum 9-for-32 (28.1 percent) in the second quarter. And one of coach Terry Stotts’ top reserves – Pat Connaughton – has made just 4-of-18 shots in the second quarter.

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“I don’t know there is a common theme right now,’’ Stotts said. “I’m always reluctant to make generalizations too early.’’

The second quarter is perhaps the most unique quarter in the game. It is the quarter that typically includes the most reserves, and it features the first re-entry and re-acclimation to the game by the starters. 

“The game changes from first to second quarter,’’ Lillard said. “The first quarter you come out and you establish what you want to do – then you come back in the second and the game has taken a turn, and as a point guard and as a person who is trying to manage the game, you have to gauge what the game needs.’’

For the Blazers, the second quarter always starts with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Evan Turner at small forward, and Ed Davis at center. The only variable has been power forward, where Stotts has experimented with Maurice Harkless, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins, and recently Noah Vonleh.

Generally, the offense is driven by Turner and McCollum until around the six or seven minute mark, when Stotts typically sends in  Lillard (for McCollum) and Jusuf Nurkic (for Davis).

Turner has been especially effective in the second quarter, making 16-of-26 shots (61.5 percent) while Nurkic has made the most field goals (17-of-32).

Tonight, the Blazers (5-4) play host to Oklahoma City (4-4), allowing more fodder to support, or debunk, the Blazers’ second quarter standing.

In the meantime, Stotts and Lillard echoed the same retort to the second-quarter questioning:

 “It’s always something,’’ both of them said.

“But that’s the beauty of it,’’ Lillard said. “We work to perfect the game but it’s a game that can’t be perfected.  That’s what we enjoy about it.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest has all your viewing information for tonight's Blazers-Thunder game.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl has some notes from Saturday's practice.

Brett Dawson for the Oklahoman has an update on the Thunder, including Carmelo Anthony's response to a 1-for-12 second half.

Nurk credits Dame and CJ for resurgence

Nurk credits Dame and CJ for resurgence

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.

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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.’

[Podcast: Lillard strikes again]

“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.’’