Denver Nuggets

Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic receives timely lesson before return to Denver

Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic receives timely lesson before return to Denver

Jusuf Nurkic says he is “super excited” to make his first appearance in Denver as a Trail Blazer on Monday, so perhaps it was good timing Saturday that he received a stern message from his mentor, team captain Damian Lillard.

The message: Be smart. Don’t take the bait.

In the Blazers’ past two games, Nurkic has received a late-game technical after initiating confrontations with an opponent. On Saturday, Lillard quickly got in front of Nurkic and pushed him away from a dustup with Dallas center Sal Mejri.

As the referees reviewed the play, which would result in a Nurkic technical, Lillard sternly talked to Nurkic.

“You just have to be smart enough and sharp enough not to take the bait,’’ Lillard said. “If it happens two games in a row, it’s like, come on now. We don’t have to be tough with nobody; be smart.’’

The previous game, with the Blazers up eight over Indiana, Nurkic was given a technical with 2:02 left for talking trash after blocking Victor Oladipo, who was also given a technical by retaliating with a push to Nurkic’s chest.

On Saturday, the Blazers were up 10 over Dallas with 4:36 left when Nurkic and Mejri became entangled under the basket, which was punctuated by Nurkic pushing Mejri.

Lillard and Nurkic have formed a tight bond since Denver traded the 7-footer to Portland last February. Nurkic has said Lillard is the best thing that has happened to him in his life, and he nodded Saturday as Lillard scolded him.

“Do what we have to do to win the game,’’ Lillard said. “It just doesn’t make sense. I think if there is a two-point game, or three-point game, and it happens the way it happened tonight – they shot three free throws in row - that could cost you a game. So Its better to get that across and learn that lesson in a game like tonight where we have a cushion and you let people know  … you can’t take the bait.’’

It could be an apt discussion in preparation for Monday’s game at Denver, where Nurkic became disgruntled and outspoken about what became a diminished role. The Blazers and Nuggets have faced each other three times since the trade, but all three meetings have been in Portland, including one last season in which Nurkic wished the Nuggets a “happy summer” after leading the Blazers to a key victory that all but assured them a playoff spot over the Nuggets.

Monday’s matchup also figures to play heavily in the postseason conversation. Portland (25-21) is in sixth in the West, two games ahead of  Denver (23-23), which is one spot out of the playoff hunt.

“That’s a game I look forward to, definitely,’’ Nurkic said Saturday. “Super excited … looking for another win.’’

Nurkic, who is averaging 14.4 points and 8.0 rebounds,  smiled and shrugged when asked how he thought he would be received by the Pepsi Center crowd.

“I don’t care,’’ he said. “I had ups and downs there, but I still love it. I have friends and almost a family there. At the end of the day, it’s part of the job. It’s not going to distract me, whatever they do.’’

Lillard, for one, figures to be on high alert. He said after three encounters, Nurkic should be over the emotions of facing his former team. Still, in the grand scheme, Lillard said he hopes Nurkic, and the rest of the Blazers, understand the importance of keeping their heads as the playoffs become more in focus.

“I know all my teammates pretty well,  and I don’t think we have one soft person in here,’’ Lillard said. “I don’t think there is one person in here who has to back down from an altercation if it came down to it. But two games in a row we’ve had situations where we have a lead, we have to secure the game and put the game away, then something like this happens. We have to be smart.’’

There is no holiday cheer in Moda, thanks to the Nuggets


There is no holiday cheer in Moda, thanks to the Nuggets

The Nuggets came to Portland on Friday night and dismantled the Lillard-less Blazers, 102-85. Lillard was a scratch due to a right hamstring strain he suffered Wednesday against the Spurs, and boy did the Blazers miss him.

Portland struggled to find offense from anyone on Friday, even CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic struggled, combining for just 25 points. On the other side of the court, the Nuggets were unstoppable. Nikola Jokic scored 27, Wilson Chandler scored 21, and Gary Harris scored 17.

The Blazers have no time to dwell, as they play the Lakers Saturday at Staple center.

Final Score: Nuggets 102 – Blazers 95.

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.’’

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.



Crabbe gets cooking, rescuing Blazers in comeback victory over Minnesota

Crabbe gets cooking, rescuing Blazers in comeback victory over Minnesota

In the span of 48 seconds on Thursday, the Trail Blazers playoff hopes went from bleak to promising, all thanks to Allen Crabbe.

In probably his greatest moment as a pro, Crabbe scored 10 points in a 48-second span turning an 87-82 deficit into a 92-89 lead, pushing the Blazers to a 105-98 win and onto the brink of clinching the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.

Crabbe scored 25 points and hit eight three pointers – three of them coming in the decisive 48 second span, including one while being fouled by Tyus Jones that resulted in a free throw.

"I love seeing a shooter get on a roll like that,'' Coach Terry Stotts said.

The win increased Portland’s lead over Denver to 1.5 games with three games remaining. Denver plays at home Friday against New Orleans. Any combination of Portland wins or Denver losses that equals two will earn Portland the final playoff spot.

Damian Lillard added 22 points, nine rbeounds and eight assists and CJ McCollum had 18 points and five assists.

Portland trailed by as many as 15 in the third quarter and 87-80 entering the fourth quarter, but Minnesota missed its first 13 shots of the fourth and 19 of its first 20 shots. When it was all said and done, Minnesota scored 11 fourth quarter points and went 3-for-23 from the field in the fourth. The fourth-quarter meltdown included the abandoning of Karl-Anthony Towns, whose inside play was dominant through the first three quarters. Towns had 22 points and 12 rebounds entering the fourth, but attempted only two shots, one of them a rebound put-back with 16 seconds left.  Towns finished with 24 points and 16 rebounds.

Andrew Wiggins, who finished with 36 points, went 1-for-8 in the fourth, and Ricky Rubio, who started 6-of-7, missed eight of his final nine shots.

"We struggled most of the night, but the fourth qaurter was terrific,'' Stotts said. "There was a lot of great defensive play, and obviously A.C.'s shooting was terrific.''

The Blazers erased a 15-point deficit in the third quarter, making their push after Towns headed to the bench after picking up his fourth foul. After Towns left, Portland went on a 12-2 run to draw even at 72 with 6:05. But that’s when Towns returned and the Blazers and Minnesota regained its footing, taking an 87-80 lead into the fourth.

Minnesota led 61-53 at halftime after leading by as many as 14 in the first quarter and 12 in the second quarter. Wiggins was dominant, particularly with post ups against McCollum, Lillard and Crabbe. Wiggins made 9-of-12 shots in the half and had 21 points.

Crabbe prevented the Timberwolves from running away in the first half, hitting his first three 3-point attempts.

Minnesota jumped to a 12-2 start and eventually took a 34-20 lead after the first quarter. They rode post ups by Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins early, then the outside shooting of Rubio late in the quarter. Meanwhile, Portland shot just 32 percent, with Lillard missing his first six shots before scoring on a driving layin with 32 seconds left.

Al-Farouq Aminu, who started for the second straight game in the Blazers’ small-ball lineup without injured center Jusuf Nurkic, had 15 points and seven rebounds and Noah Vonleh added nine points and seven rebounds.

Next up: Utah at Blazers, 7 p.m. Saturday (KGW).


Blazers and Nuggets seem destined to go down to the final game

Blazers and Nuggets seem destined to go down to the final game

Some thoughts about the Trail Blazers' debacle in Salt Lake City Tuesday night and their playoff chances moving forward:

  • Some players prove their value with their play. Others show how valuable they are when they don't play. How important is Jusuf Nurkic to the Trail Blazers? Well, that mess of a team you saw against the Jazz Tuesday night looked like one of the better teams in the league when he was playing. Draw your own conclusions.
  • I was disappointed by the play of the Trail Blazers in their final two road games. The Minnesota game should have been a win. The Utah game should have been more competitive. Period.
  • Without Nurkic, the Trail Blazers are obviously going to have trouble defending bigs -- and there will be plenty of them to contend with in the final four games of the season. Playing a small lineup is not going to work unless Portland gets more active defensively -- and I would wonder if it's too late in the season to muster the energy to do that. Low-post players being defended by Al-Farouq Aminu need to be double-teamed. The Trail Blazers don't do much of that and may not be very effective with rotations when they do.
  • What then? Well, Portland was defeated soundly in the paint last season several times and made up for it by hitting an avalanche of three-point field goals. The three-pointers erase a lot of mistakes at both ends of the floor.
  • But, uh, that hasn't been going well lately, either. Without Nurkic, the Portland guards aren't getting as many open looks as they did. And they aren't hitting the ones they're getting.
  • For the Trail Blazers to hang onto a playoff berth, CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard are going to have to be stellar. They're going to have to make shots and not turn the ball over. You can talk all you want about the defensive problems against the Timberwolves, but Lillard had a game-winning jumper in his sights and didn't hit it. And he went 5 for 20 from the field against Utah the following night. Yes, that's a lot of pressure on Lillard -- but that's what comes with being the team's franchise player, captain and all-star. He knows that and I expect him to respond favorably to the challenge.
  • The biggest game of the week for the Trail Blazers may be one they aren't involved in -- tonight's contest in Houston between the Rockets and Denver Nuggets. If the Nuggets can win that game, they will put all kinds of pressure on the Trail Blazers. And Portland doesn't have any margin for error in its remaining four games.
  • The Blazers still have to play San Antonio and Utah -- and you can talk all you want about having those games at home but Portland's homecourt hasn't been all that advantageous this season. The Blazers are 22-15 at home but five of those wins came with Nurkic leading the way. Other than that short span, the Trail Blazers have basically been a .500 team at home. That doesn't bode well for this week without the Bosnian Beast.
  • The Nuggets have two games left with Oklahoma City, a team they are 0-2 against this season.
  • Playoffs for Portland? I would still say yes. But fasten your seat belts. This one may be a rough ride.

Blazers start final back-to-back with a trip to Minnesota

Blazers start final back-to-back with a trip to Minnesota

The magic number: Four. All the Portland Trail Blazers (38-38) need to do is win four of their final six games and they will clinch the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Portland heads into tonight’s matchup with the Timberwolves (30-45) with a two game lead on the ninth place Denver Nuggets (36-40). Portland won the season series against the Nuggets, meaning Denver needs to finish a full game ahead of the Blazers in order to secure a playoff spot. At this point, the eight seed feels like a near lock for the Blazers.

Portland has come out victorious in its past six games, including a lopsided 130-117 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday. The Blazers controlled the game from the jump, at one point leading the Suns 50-25. Phoenix clawed back and made it a single digit game, but the Blazers quickly answered and stretched it back out to double digits. The final score was a lot closer than the game ever was.

It was a very impressive win for the Blazers. Portland had six players in double figures, led by Damian Lillard with 31. Noah Vonleh chipped in a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds, while Evan Turner scored 18 off of the bench. It was a big test for the Blazers, playing their first game without star center Jusuf Nurkić, and needless to say they passed their first hurdle.

The next test comes in the form of the Karl-Anthony Town led Timberwolves. Minnesota is just 3-7 in its last 10 games, and is coming off of a 117-123 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Saturday. Despite the losing record, this test will be a little harder for Portland. With no Nurkić and a hobbled Meyers Leonard the Blazers may have a hard time guarding Towns. In the two previous games these two have played, both wins for the Blazers, Towns has averaged 13.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. However, both of those contests came against a Blazers team that was largely healthy. It will be interesting to see how the Blazers choose to defend  the Timberwolves attack without their true starting center.

On the bright side the Blazers are 2-0 on the season against Minnesota, last matching up just over a week ago – A 112-110 win for the Blazers. Can the Blazers make it 3-0?

Let’s just hope there isn’t condensation on the court in Minnesota this time around.

We will help set the stage for Saturday’s game with an all-new Rip City Live starting at 3:00pm only on CSN.   

And if you can’t get to a TV, you can check out The Scoop Pregame Show streaming live on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer at 6:00pm at

Quick Links:

As Trail Blazers' only remaining center, Meyers Leonard presented with 'huge' opportunity 

Video: Quick: Leonard's dinner with Nurkić

Video:  Lillard: Staying poised despite distractions

Video: Stotts: Life without Nurkić

Game Details:

Where:  Target Center, Minneapolis MN

Television: CSN, 4:00pm

CSN Programming:  Rip City Live (3:00pm), Talkin' Ball  (Immediately after the Blazers postgame show)

Live streaming: Watch an authenticated stream of the game at or on the NBC Sports App! Plus the Scoop Pregame Show streams at 3:00pm at The Scoop Postgame Show will stream immediately after the game at

Radio: Rip City Radio 620


A special Rip City night: Inside the Trail Blazers' biggest win of the season

A special Rip City night: Inside the Trail Blazers' biggest win of the season

Some thoughts and scenes after the Trail Blazers’ 122-113 win over Denver on Tuesday -- the best night of this suddenly enrapturing season:

Portland’s love affair with Nurkic: “It’s just crazy’

Long after the obituary is written on what is now becoming a memorable season, we will remember Tuesday night.

What happened inside the Moda Center was what makes Portland one of the best basketball towns in the NBA.

Behind Portland’s new sweetheart, Jusuf Nurkic, and another artful performance by CJ McCollum, the Moda Center was popping like never before this season, the electricity generating a scene that few NBA places outside of Portland can recreate.

During the tail end of Nurkic’s 33-point, 16-rebound performance against his former team, Section 314 in the Moda Center started a “JUS-UF NUR-KIC” chant that soon spread across the entire arena. Then many of the sellout crowd stuck around to hear his postgame interview on the court, after which fans again showered him with a love that had to make his girlfriend in attendance blush.

“I enjoy every moment I play here,’’ Nurkic told the crowd. “I mean, how they welcome me … I love you guys. I love you.’’

We’ve seen this kind of embrace and recognition for great performances in recent years. In 2010, Marcus Camby was serenaded after a 30-point, 10-rebound performance against Oklahoma City. The next season, Gerald Wallace’s name echoed throughout the rafters after he had 25 points, 8 rebounds, five assists and two blocks.

And over the years, the likes of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard have been baptized into Blazers royalty with M-V-P chants.

When Portland falls, it falls hard, and often it leads to some pretty inspired play.

“For the crowd to embrace him the way it has, it’s been great for him,’’ teammate Maurice Harkless said. “It’s been really good for his confidence and has helped his play.’’

It is part of what makes Portland a special place for Blazers players. Yes, this town might not be viewed as a free agent destination, but more often than not, once players arrive, they come to realize the passion and love here makes it unique.

“It shows you how much they care for us and how dedicated they are,’’ McCollum said. “I appreciate it. And I know Nurk and the rest of the guys are happy to play in this kind of environment. We are under .500 and still got a 20,000 sellout. That’s not normal.’’

Harkless, who came to Portland in a trade from Orlando, said it means something to players to be embraced by a city.

“I feel like the fans have embraced me really well – not like Nurk though,’’ Harkless said, laughing. “It’s just crazy what’s going on with Nurk.’’

There are t-shirts, signs, and now chants. And most of all, there is new life to a team, and a season.

“When I see the fans out there, the arena packed, it’s the best feeling you have,’’ Nurkic said Wednesday. “Especially on a night where I need the support from them. They have been there, the least I can do is play well and win the game.’’

Dame called it

Few Blazers over the years better identify and capitalize on big moments than Damian Lillard, so there was a measure of appreciation from Lillard on Tuesday in watching Nurkic’s performance and the crowd’s reaction.

“I’m a person who believes things are written, that they are supposed to happen a certain way,’’ Lillard said.

He had an inkling it might be a big game for Nurkic the night before, a premonition he shared with Nurkic over a text message.

“I told him last night – ‘I think it’s going to go real well for you’ – I feel like it was written that way, it was supposed to go that way,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard remarked how the team has become familiar with Nurkic, and how much the players have grown to like him. He called Nurkic a “great teammate” and the first person to get up and rally behind the team when things start to go bad. He also said he is one of the more “blunt” players, but that he likes that in a teammate.

“Guys like that,’’ Lillard said. “Things tend to work in their favor.’’

Soon, after a couple of Nurkic’s inside shots bounced around the rim and trickled in, Lillard said he nodded in recognition of his feeling the night before.

“I was right about it,’’ Lillard said with a smile. “It was going to be his night.’’

Of course, what made the night particularly special was Nurkic’s former team – whose coach and management felt he wasn’t worthy of the rotation –  watched and  experienced just how much the combination of love and opportunity can carry a player.

“When the crowd started chanting, I felt good for him,’’ Lillard said. “It had to feel good. Your old team gets to see how the crowd is behind him … I was happy to see that.’’

The Ice Brothers

Lost in the emotion of Nurkic’s big night was the brilliance of CJ McCollum, who had 39 points on some of the smoothest and prettiest 15-of-24 shooting you will ever see.

Turns out, the seeds of McCollum’s performance might have been planted on Sunday night in Los Angeles, after the Blazers’ victory over the Lakers.

“I usually like to say I rise to the occasion in big games,’’ McCollum said. “And Dame and I had talked about what was at stake for the team, and between us, (how) this is a game we needed to win to continue to sustain winning streak. So I knew I needed to be aggressive.’’

That conversation transpired in a scene like so many of the duo’s interactions: after a game as they both soak their feet in ice in front of their lockers.

On the road, the two always have their lockers next to each other (at home they are on opposite sides of the locker room). After every game, the two decompress from the game while soaking their feet in a bucket of ice water, often leaning over to the other to share something from their phone, or to openly talk about any random subject.

In San Antonio earlier this month, Lillard scrolled through his phone and reported the night’s scores to McCollum. In New Orleans, McCollum huddled with Lillard for a private conversation.

On Sunday in Los Angeles, after the Blazers moved into a tie with Denver, Lillard initiated the first of what both said was a series of conversations about the leading the Blazers past the milestone of catching the Nuggets.

“We’ve had this type of discussion between each other right after most games, us sitting with our feet in the ice,’’ Lillard said. “In L.A., it wasn’t a super deep conversation, but my point was, it’s one thing for us to do all we did to get to this position, but it’s up to us to keep rising and move past being excited about what we’ve done.’’

The communication and closeness of the two Blazers stars remains remarkable, and it has translated to the court, where seldom – if ever -- have the two fought for the spotlight or struggled to get the ball from the other.

That selflessness comes from what Lillard calls a “real” relationship, and from both prioritizing wins over statistics.

Much of that closeness either starts, or is continued, while both ice their feet after games on the road. And often, those conversations involve the burden and expectations involved in being franchise cornerstones.

The ice bath conversation after the win over the Lakers was the culmination of a series of talks in Los Angeles.

“We talked. And we talked. In the hotel, at dinner,’’ McCollum said. “We understood what was at stake here, for not only as team, but us as individuals. If the team doesn’t make the playoffs it’s not ‘The Blazers didn’t make the playoffs.’ It’s ‘Dame and CJ can’t play together’ …  ‘Dame and CJ aren’t good enough to get the team to the playoffs.’

“Like, it’s going to be on us, they are going to pick us apart. We understand that and we want to put ourselves in best position to make this team better. Good players put their teams in the playoffs, and that’s what we plan on doing.’’

It’s a good peek at the pressure both young stars feel in carrying this team, and explains why the two are two of the hardest workers in the gym.

“I embrace that expectation,’’ McCollum said. “That’s why we get paid what we get paid. That’s why we are in the positions we are each night, to take certain shots, to make plays for others. That’s what happens when you are a good player and you want to be elite.’’

Added Lillard: “It’s going to take us. We are going to have to push the line, push the ‘We are not satisfied … this is what it should have been all along type thing. And it starts with us. That’s the facts.’’

'A New Day'

The fact today is Portland hasn’t accomplished anything.

The Blazers (36-38) are 12-3 in March and own a one game lead over Denver (plus the tiebreaker) with eight games remaining.

Never before this season have the Blazers been involved in such an emotional and charged game, and it was abundantly clear at Wednesday’s practice the team was more eager to talk about Thursday’s game against Houston (7:30 p.m., TNT) than the big night against Denver.

“I appreciate the moment (of Tuesday night),’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “The game was important, it was unique game for Jusuf to play against his former team in a game that mattered with playoff implications. I totally get that. But we have to move onto Houston. I was happy for him, even more happy for our team that we got the win, but today is a new day. ‘’

Stotts over the past two weeks has commented on the team’s “edge” and “demeanor” – a compliment which generally refers to the team’s mental focus and toughness. Lillard on Wednesday said the team will need that same edge and demeanor moving forward.

“A lot of hard work went in to get to last night,’’ Lillard said. “But it can all go to waste if we don’t stay locked in. When you have a big emotional game and you win, it’s the ultimate letdown that could come after that, so we have to keep minds right.’’

Next up: Houston at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Thursday (TNT).

Denver's Coach Mike Malone: "Jusuf Nurkic kicked our ass"

Denver's Coach Mike Malone: "Jusuf Nurkic kicked our ass"

The best description of what happened Tuesday night in Moda Center came from Denver Nuggets Coach Mike Malone. It was clear, concise and to the point -- if a little raw.

"Jusuf Nurkic kicked our ass," Malone said after Portland's 122-113 monster win over his Nuggets. “He was very physical. To come on the road and give up 28 second-chance points, we couldn’t rebound all night. It’s a tough loss for us.”

That pretty well sums it up. And let me just say that in my many seasons of covering the NBA, I can't remember a time when a player stuck it to his former team to the degree that Nurkic (33 points, 16 rebounds, three blocked shots) did Tuesday. Many times I have seen players so choked up with a thirst for revenge against a former team that they accomplished virtually nothing. It takes something special to do what Nurkic did to his former team. And I couldn't help but think the Nugget players knew him well enough to know what was coming and were just a little bit wary of him. Almost intimidated. Read this quote carefully:

“I expected that, to be honest,” said Nikola Jokic, who had 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. “We all expected it because I know his temper and I knew he was going to do that. I knew that he was going to be aggressive and try to have the best game of his life.”

The telling remark was "I know his temper." I think Jokic knows that Nurkic has a bit of an edge about him. He's not afraid to throw his body around -- or YOUR BODY around. And all night, it seemed Jokic, a very good player the Nuggets trusted their future to, rather than Nurkic, was tip-toeing around Nurkic. He was a little timid.

Just think about the situation. The Nuggets gave Portland Nurkic -- and a first-round draft pick -- for Mason Plumlee, who did not score in this game and was a player virtually impossible for Portland to retain past this season. It's the most lopsided trade since those Dutch colonists swung that deal with the Native Americans for Manhattan in exchange for 60 guilders -- but no draft picks and nary a single Dutchman to be named later.

The Denver deal led to Nurkic Fever, which is developing into a very torrid love affair between the player and this city's basketball fans. It's a pretty amazing affair.

It's none of my business, but somebody in Denver surely must be cleaning out a desk and checking the help-wanted ads after making that trade.


Behind Jusuf Nurkic, Trail Blazers take care of Denver, move into sole possession of 8th

Behind Jusuf Nurkic, Trail Blazers take care of Denver, move into sole possession of 8th

The player who turned around the Trail Blazers season might have just sealed their postseason fate.

Jusuf Nurkic, who was acquired in a trade with Denver 19 games ago, had a career-high 33 points to go along with 16 rebounds, leading the Trail Blazers to a 122-113 win over the Nuggets that put the Blazers in sole possession of  the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with eight games left.

Nurkic leading up to the game downplayed the matchup against his former teammates, but quickly it became apparent this wasn’t an ordinary game for the Bosnian.

Playing with aggression and emotion, Nurkic dunked with abandon, repeatedly urged the crowd to get louder, and cheered his teammates on wildly as the Blazers broke the tie with the Nuggets for eighth.

The sellout Moda Center crowd serenaded Nurkic in the fourth quarter with chants of “JU-SUF NUR-KIC” and he received a standing ovation when he was substituted out of the game with 22 seconds left.

"I was really happy for him,'' Coach Terry Stotts said. "I know how it is any time you face a former team, that carries a little added significance for that player. And this is probably the most important game he has played in the NBA -- playoff implications, all that. So obviously a big game for him, probably biggest in his career. Really happy the way it turned out for him.''

Plumlee, meanwhile, missed all four of his shots and finished with two rebounds and three assists in 16 minutes, his play as anonymous as his entrance in the first quarter, when the Blazers public address announcer failed to mention his name.

As much as Nurkic was the star, and a major subplot to the game, Blazers guard CJ McCollum was just as impactful. He scored 37 points on 15-of-24 shooting and carried the Blazers in the second quarter, when he scored 16 points.

Portland (36-38) won its fourth straight and is now 12-3 in March. In essence, the Blazers have a two-game edge over Denver (35-39) for the final playoff spot because they won the season-series over the Nuggets 3-1. Portland has six of its final eight games at home while Denver played six of its final eight on the road.

Jameer Nelson led Denver with 23 points and Nikola Jokic, the player whose emergence this season pushed Nurkic to the wayside, had 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

Denver lost its shooting touch in the third quarter, closing the quarter making 4 of its final 16 shots, and the Blazers took advantage, turning a 77-76 lead into a 95-85 advantage heading into the fourth.

Denver was within 109-103 with 5:07 left, but Al-Farouq Aminu (15 points) scored four in a row and Denver never threatened again.

The Blazers led 66-64 at halftime in a fast-paced, hot-shooting game. Portland made its move midway through the second quarter with a 10-0 run that gave them a 56-52 lead. The spurt included a Nurkic dunk, Nurkic post up on Plumlee and three-pointers from McCollum and Lillard.

The first half featured 12 ties and five lead changes, with Denver holding as much as a seven point lead and Portland no lead larger than four.

Nurkic was engaged and electric from the opening tip. He scored the Blazers’ first points off an offensive rebound and had six of the team’s first nine and nine of the first 18. He repeatedly asked the crowd to make more noise, and when he rested on the bench, he was often the first up to cheer his teammates.

Next up: Houston at Blazers, Thursday 7:30 p.m. (TNT)