The Trail Blazers 2019-20 season was on the line Thursday night.
And it all came down to the final shot.
Fortunately for Portland, Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert, who had already scored 37 points on 16-for-29 shooting, dribbled the clock down in the fourth quarter with the Nets trailing by one, but his jumper clanked off the back of the rim. Carmelo Anthony secured the rebound.
And with that the Blazers won 134-133.
That was a crazy finish, to say the least.
But before Portland’s season literally hung in the air in Orlando -- there were bodies flying.
To say the Trail Blazers left it all out on the floor seems like an understatement.
Portland’s dynamic duo of Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic rose to the occasion; or dove to the occasion, in this case.
It was obvious watching their effort in the fourth quarter, that they were not ready to go home.
The Trail Blazers were a big fan of Nurkic sacrificing his body in crunch time, just as Nurkic is a “big fan” of being in Orlando.
His postgame hashtag confirmed it.
There were two specific plays that Blazers head coach Terry Stotts pointed to as key possessions for his team Thursday. And one of them was Nurkic sprawling out on the floor, with 1:28 to go in the game, to save the ball from spinning out of bounds on the baseline after a bad pass by Joe Harris down low.
That extra effort was on display in the Blazers’ locker room postgame.
The two things we showed in the locker room after the game was Nurk diving on the floor under two minutes, Dame diving on the floor and those are the things that we have to do to win games… and those two plays made the difference. -- Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts
Nurkic at 7’0” and 290 pounds plummeted to the floor to give the Blazers an extra possession and to prove once again that he wants to continue to play the game he loves – the game that was taken away from him following his gruesome leg injury in March of 2019 against who else, but the Brooklyn Nets.
Facing the team that ran away from Nurkic once they witnessed the status of his broken left leg in the game on Mar. 25, 2019, meant Thursday’s win wasn’t just a relief to move on and secure a play-in spot, it also took its toll on Nurk’s psyche.
This game might be a little bit emotional for me because I got hurt against them at Moda. But, like I said... LaVert is a great player, had a great game. I think we get the best of him tonight. Give them credit, what they did, what they tried to did. But, I think we did a hell of a job to win the game… Obviously, we couldn’t get rebounds [in the] last couple of possessions, but, like I said – it wasn’t meant to be for them. We got a win, that’s all that matters. -- Trail Blazers big man Jusuf Nurkic
It closed the loop.
Nurkic also described the play of him diving on the ground for the steal from Harris, saying, “whatever it takes,” which has also been Damian Lillard’s motto through all eight of these seeding games.
It was with 1:12 remaining in the game when Lillard sacrificed his body, hitting the deck and snatching the ball from LeVert which led to the go-ahead 21-foot pull-up jumper from CJ McCollum to put the Blazers up 134-130.
[Listen to the Talkin’ Blazers Podcast with hosts NBA Champion Channing Frye and Emmy Award winner Dan Sheldon and special guest Kevin Love].
The bottom line is, the Blazers came up with stops when they absolutely needed them Thursday night.
Portland’s defense has been suspect in the NBA restart; however, the Blazers’ team captain explained how coming up with timely stops meant easier buckets down the stretch.
“Once we got those stops, we was able to get to the rim, get fouled, get a few easier looks and then get ourselves back into the game, and then I think once we cut it to like, four, and we settled in, we got a stop and they were being aggressive and I just, I felt the guy chasing me over the screen and I just rose up and we got the three free throws… Once we got to that point, I was like – now it’s just a matter of who is gonna make the big plays down the stretch, who is going to do just a little bit more, and who wants it more, we was able to do that,” Lillard said.
Lillard once again led the charge Thursday night. He made 13-of-22 shots, including 8-of-14 from deep, to finish with 42 points. He also dished out 12 assists.
As for Nurkic, he finished with 22 points on 11-of-17 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds and three rebounds in 33 minutes of action.
Heading into the final seeding game, Nurkic was averaging 17.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 41 assists in 31.4 minutes of work.
That's a lot of minutes for a big fella just returning from a big injury.
Nurkic mentioned after the win that he has been surprised at how good his conditioning has been in the seeding games after not having played in a game for more than 14 months.
“My shape – I was surprised by the way I was playing. My shape is surprisingly good enough to play those minutes,” Nurkic said.
Now as the No. 8 seeded Blazers prepare for Saturday's play-in game against No. 9 seed Memphis Grizzlies, the Blazers are making sure to get in some recovery time.
“Trying get a cold tub right now," Nurkic joked. "Have ice all over me. Try to get rest as I can, that’s all I can do, right?”
Yep, bring on the ice and then... Bring on, the Grizzlies.