The Trail Blazers staved off elimination Thursday night at the Moda Center. But when they board the team plane to head to Denver on Saturday afternoon ahead of Game 7, the guy who wants to be there the most likely won’t be on the flight.
“It’s ridiculous,” Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic said almost scoffing at the challenge of watching his team play the biggest games of the season while he is forced to watch from the sidelines. “But I gotta take it. For me, it’s harder when you’re out there (on the bench) and not out there (in the game). When you’re watching and you actually just can only watch as a fan, it makes even harder.”
Six weeks ago, Nurkic suffered a gruesome leg injury, sustaining compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula. That he’s even at the games walking around without support is a surprise. Yet he’s become a bench staple at second half of home games, emerging from the Moda Center tunnel with a suit and a custom t-shirt to be welcomed by an eruption from the Blazers faithful when he is shown on the arena screens.
He smiles. Waves. Pumps up the crowd. And basks in the cheers for a moment. But there’s agony under the surface. There is nothing Nurkic would like to do more than help his team on the floor during these playoffs.
“I wish I could play,” he says more than with a hint of resignation.
Nurkic was telling anyone that would listen that he wanted to be in uniform Thursday night. He told assistant coaches, he told the team’s security guard, he told Terry Stotts, and he told Damian Lillard.
“Today was actually the first time that he said to me when I was sitting next to him on the bench, he said, ‘Man I wish I could play with my broken leg. I would go out there right now and get hurt again if I could,” Lillard said. “And I was like, ‘This dude is crazy.’”
On the bench, Nurkic is believably vocal. He’s calling out defensive coverages, encouraging his teammates’ effort and of course seizing the moment to talk trash to his former Nuggets teammates.
“He’s talking,” Seth Curry said. “He always talking. And just … he’s just Nurk.”
Nurkic is brash, bold and, as Lillard has described him, as petty as they come. That’s why when he made his post-injury debut at the Moda Center he came wearing a custom t-shirt that read “Got Bricks? Next question” to directly mock Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. On Thursday, the t-shirt had names of Bosnians killed in conflicts during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. A strange, but not so subtle nod to Denver’s Serbian star Nikola Jokic.
“All I can do is cheer for my teammates and just be who I am,” Nurkic said.
He’s just Nurk. More playful than incendiary, but incendiary nonetheless. He and Jokic have a rivalry on the court, but they’re friendly off it. It’s why Jokic ended his press conference with an unprompted message to Nurkic.
“I know he had a tough injury and, yes he was with us and we’re conference whatever; we’re rivals,” Jokic said. “But for me it’s really nice to see him walking by himself in such a short period.”
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Custom shirts aside, Nurkic said he’s happiest when he’s seeing his teammates win the very same games that he would do nearly anything to be a part of. While it’s been hard for him, he has been a welcomed addition to the Blazers bench.
“He’s a part of the team so having him there it feels more complete,” Lillard said. “Sometimes you look down there and when he’s not there, it’s like, ‘Man …’ You can tell somebody’s missing, a player’s missing. He’s also a talkative person. So you feel his presence.”
The Blazers will play will their most important game in nearly two decades on Sunday. Nurkic almost certainly won’t be there. He’ll be at home, filling up Twitter timelines with GIFs, anxious that he can’t be on the court.
“I’m excited for Game 7,” he said. “It’s going to be a really interesting game.”
There was some torment hidden behind that answer. It’s been a challenge being reduced to spectator. But if the Blazers pull off the road win and end up in the Western Conference finals on Sunday night, no one in Rip City will be happier than the self proclaimed Bosnian Beast.
“Can I enjoy them?,” Nurkic asked ruminating on the question for a moment. “If we’re winning I enjoy every game, man.”