OKLAHOMA CITY – He has become the face of the Trail Blazers’ late-season revival, so perhaps it was fitting that Jusuf Nurkic smiled on his way out of the locker room Tuesday while shrugging off a comment that he had made the season fun again.
“Playoffs,’’ Nurkic said after hitting two crucial inside baskets that broke a tie and led the Blazers to a 126-121 victory at Oklahoma City. “That’s all I care about. Doesn’t matter who scores, I just want playoffs.’’
Once a fading proposition, the playoffs are now as bright as Nurkic’s smile thanks to the big man’s blend of size, skill and savvy which has sparked a three-game winning streak.
Not since training camp, when optimism abounded and goals gushed, have the Trail Blazers felt so good about themselves, and for good reason.
Not only is the team playing its best basketball of the season, it is coming at the most important time, with four weeks left in what figures to be an intense five-team playoff push for the eighth and final spot.
The Blazers (27-35) trail eighth-place Denver by 1.5 games and lead 10th place Dallas by one-half game with 20 games remaining. Twelve of those 20 games will be at the Moda Center and 13 are against teams with losing records.
But more than a weighted home schedule and a favorable slate of opponents, the Blazers are soaring with confidence, which was never more on display than Tuesday in Oklahoma City, where they overcame an early 14-point deficit then held off a furious late-game assault by Russell Westbrook.
“I think it said a lot about where we are in the moment right now,’’ Damian Lillard said.
If there has been a more emphatic and dramatic mid-season addition to the Blazers than Nurkic, it is not coming to mind. His deft passing, burly presence inside and delicate shooting touch is bringing back memories of Arvydas Sabonis.
More important, he has changed the way the Blazers play … in a good way. As evidenced by his two post scores in the final minute with the game on the line, the Blazers have a formidable inside threat perhaps for the first time since the big Lithuanian was lugging around with the No. 11 jersey.
He has also shored up the defense inside, where Portland was often pushed around and bullied, and nothing exemplifies that more than how Nurkic neutralized Thunder center Steven Adams the past two games after Adams made a habit of embarrassing the Blazers with dunks and rebounds.
“I’ve said it over and over: he’s huge,’’ Lillard said of Nurkic. “A guy that big, that coordinated, that skilled … him catching it, banging and spinning and jump hook with both hands, that’s something we haven’t had. He was just huge for us.’’
What has made Nurkic’s addition so appealing is it has seemingly come out of nowhere, giving his rise somewhat of an underdog feel that Blazers fans have long latched onto with fervor.
He was a heralded rookie in Denver, but injuries, a logjam of bigs, and some pouting by Nurkic, pushed him out of favor and set the table for the trade to Portland for Mason Plumlee and a first-round pick.
In Portland, Nurkic has described feeling liberated which has translated to a palpable enthusiasm and zeal to his game that has been contagious in the locker room. Sometimes, some of the most powerful forces in the NBA are the feeling of being wanted and the opportunity to play, and Nurkic says those factors are fueling his Rose City renaissance.
“It’s all you need, man. When you play professional in the best league in the world, that’s all you need: Coach who want you; organization and fans who want you here; and the free mind to focus on basketball,’’ Nurkic said. “So, now I enjoy, and you can see on the court. We have a good team here and we are going to be in a good position if we play like this.’’
In seven games with the Blazers, Nurkic is averaging 14.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 4.0 assists in 29 minutes. Portland is 4-3 in games he has played.
“Certainly, Nurk has made a difference,’’ Stotts said, while noting how many other players are also playing well. “I think the (All-Star) break did us well … and I think there’s no question he has had an impact. I don’t want to undersell that. He has infused some energy and a different style of play.’’
Stotts was wary to heap all his praise on Nurkic because the Oklahoma City victory was flush with performances up and down the roster that normally would garner headlines by themselves.
Allen Crabbe led the team with 23 points while hitting 7-of-10 shots. He did it while showing a rare eagerness and determination to shoot, which might have been sparked by a recent sitdown with Stotts and CJ McCollum to brainstorm ways to get him better involved.
“When I’m engaged like that, I feel like I can do good things for the team,’’ Crabbe said. “My teammates did a good job finding me, they kept calling plays for me. I just have to stay like that.’’
Meanwhile, Al-Farouq Aminu left his imprint all over Chesapeake Energy Arena with an impressive display of shooting, defense and grit. He hit 5-of-6 shots and had 12 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and a steal. All three of his blocks came in the pressure-packed fourth quarter, with two of them at the rim in what were momentum-changing plays. And when the smoke cleared after every fight for a rebound or loose ball, Aminu seemed to be in the middle of it.
“His presence,’’ Lillard said of Aminu, “is everything. We need guys who want to get in the middle and mix it up, and it just felt like he was in the middle of the action a lot.’’
Aminu, who has missed 20 games because of calf, back and knee issues, has always been an unsung hero of the team because of his defense, but now with armed with a torrid shooting spell over the past two weeks, he is right behind Nurkic as the face of this late-season surge.
Also of note Tuesday was the play of Noah Vonleh, who Stotts said might have played his finest game of the season (11 points, 5 rebounds), and Meyers Leonard, whose defense and shooting helped spark the Blazers’ game-changing rally in the second quarter.
Leonard’s 12-point night, which included the Blazers being a plus-24 when he was on the court, came as he played with a heavy heart after his beloved dog, Bella, was diagnosed with kidney failure the night before. Bella, a four-year-old Siberian Husky, famously crashed coach Stotts’ postseason media address last season and is a fixture in Leonard’s life.
“It’s been tough on me. Luckily for me, this gave me a chance to escape from the real world,’’ Leonard said. “But it’s been a rough go at it for the last couple of days for me.’’
The same can’t be said for the Blazers, who are riding as high as they have since October, when they had visions of winning the Northwest Division and advancing to the conference finals.
It might be a late run, but as they say, better late than never.
“This could be a springboard for us, a confidence game,’’ Lillard said. “That’s a tough team to play against and we came here and got it done.’’
Up next: Philadelphia at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (CSN)