It was over a steak and seafood dinner on Friday night in downtown Portland when the proverbial torch was passed among Trail Blazers centers.
Jusuf Nurkic, the Bosnian sensation who has turned around the Blazers season, limped out of El Gaucho restaurant, with Meyers Leonard following and taking notice.
Earlier in the day, Nurkic had learned that the nagging pain he had been playing with in his lower right leg was a fracture, and it would sideline him for at least two weeks and the rest of the regular season.
About a week earlier, long before the pain arrived, and before the news spread around Portland of Nurkic’s unfortunate break, the two big men planned on taking their significant others on a double-date. And when Nurkic said he liked steak and seafood, Leonard knew just the place.
At El Gaucho, Leonard said the two barely broached the subject of Nurkic’s injury, but as Nurkic left the restaurant with what Leonard described as a significant limp, he couldn’t help but put two-and-two together:
The biggest opportunity of Leonard’s career was now before him.
“There’s no other way around it. It’s cut-and-dried,’’ Leonard said. “I’m the only (center) left on the roster.’’
If the Blazers are going to finish their spirited run to the playoffs, Leonard will likely have to play his biggest role of his five-year career – as starting center for the season’s final seven games.
“I’m going to do the best I can to seize this opportunity and help us make the playoffs,’’ Leonard said. “I feel like I can help us in a lot of ways, especially now -- there’s no looking over my shoulder.’’
Leonard described his season as “volatile” in that he has been in-and-out of the rotation and unsure when and how he would be used. And even though Leonard is the only healthy center on the roster, coach Terry Stotts said he will use a “committee” at center until Nurkic is healthy.
In the first game post-Nurkic on Saturday, Leonard started and played 22 minutes while Noah Vonleh and later Al-Farouq Aminu had stints at center.
Team captain Damian Lillard said as much as the Nurkic news was a downer, there was no reason to panic. He said that in part because the Blazers own a 2.5 game lead over Denver with six games left, but also in part because he says he believes in Leonard.
“Meyers is more than capable of getting the job done,’’ Lillard said. “And this is when we need it. We have to believe that, and he has to believe that as well.’’
In his first game with the torch, Leonard had seven points and four rebounds while making 1-of-5 shots during the Blazers’ 130-117 victory over Phoenix.
“I felt good about opportunity in front of me and still do – tonight I would have like to have made more shots -- but even with my ups and downs, I still feel like it’s headed in the right direction,’’ Leonard said.
As most of Portland was finding out about Nurkic’s non-displaced fracture of his right fibula on Friday evening, Leonard and his wife, Ellie, were dining with Nurkic and his girlfriend.
While much of Portland grieved, Leonard said their table was upbeat and relaxed.
“His spirits seemed fine, but we probably talked for one minute about it, maybe,’’ Leonard said. “In the middle of the dinner I said ‘Hey, I’m sorry to hear about what happened …’ because I don’t think he was going to bring it up.
“And he was like, ‘Sometimes, things happen.’’’
Leonard said Nurkic revealed how difficult it was to play on the leg, which he figures he hurt in the Denver game, if not before. After the Denver game, Nurkic played 32 minutes against Houston, finishing with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
“He was saying that elevating off that leg in the last game was crazy,’’ Leonard said. “Everybody was saying ‘Nurk, you have to dunk the ball’ but I don’t think anybody realized how much pain he was in. I tip my cap to him, to be able to come out against a team like Houston and battle like that.’’
Leonard knows a thing or two about playing through pain. For the last two weeks he has been playing with back and hip pain that has left his right leg virtually limp.
He says he is starting to feel stronger, but still can’t explode or jump off his right leg, which has limited his rebounding and ability to finish around the rim. Still, both he and Lillard say he can still impact the game if he isn’t 100 percent.
“This is a huge opportunity for him,’’ Lillard said. “With myself and CJ, and him coming off pick-and-rolls, he is going to get shots, he is going to get looks. He’s a good athlete , he can go in there and rebound – and he is smart. He knows the other team’s plays … so he just has to put it together.’’
Lost in the traditional statistics of Saturday’s was Leonard’s team-leading seven screens that freed up a shooter for a basket, and his ability to space the floor because teams have to respect his outside shooting.
“I felt like I was solid,’’ Leonard said. “We got a win, but I have to keep moving in right direction and help us how I can.’’
He figures to get plenty of chances over the next week as the Blazers play home and away games against both Minnesota and Utah, two teams with formidable big men.
“As long as we are doing well when I’m out there – and I’m setting screens, shooting when I’m open, and making the right plays -- I couldn’t care less about stats,’’ Leonard said. “I just want to help us win and make the playoffs.’’
Never before have the Blazers needed him more.
Next up: Blazers at Minnesota, 4 p.m. Monday (CSN).