With 2:23 left in the second overtime at Moda Center Monday night, the Portland Trail Blazers were headed toward a win that would clinch a playoff spot. And Jusuf Nurkic was bulling his way to an outstanding game, with 32 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots.
And just one second later – a blink of an eye -- it all came apart for Nurkic and his team. He landed on the floor after going after a rebound and collapsed, his left leg awkwardly bent and apparently broken.
Even though Portland would go on to 148-144 double-overtime win over the Brooklyn Nets, it was the quietest just-clinched-a-playoff-berth locker room you’d ever find.
Sports – and life – are so fragile. On top one minute and on the bottom the next. Healthy, then broken. You just never know.
And the sight of Nurkic on the floor with teammates having to turn away from the ugly scene and the arena as quiet as it would be an hour later – it was terribly sad.
“That’s what our guys are talking about in the locker room right now,” said Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson. “They’re not talking about the game or the loss, they’re talking about, you know, a player who was having a great game and a heck of a player and you just pray that it’s not a long-term thing and he can bounce back.
“It just takes the wind out of yourself. It’s just not the same.”
The Trail Blazers, indeed, said a prayer after the game in the locker room. The realization that their season could have tumbled to the ground along with Nurkic was obviously a factor. But more than that, it was the serious injury to a teammate, a brother and a friend.
“Yeah, it’s all fragile,” said Damian Lillard. “Everything about it is. Other than the friendships you have, because regardless... same team, different team, during career post career, you’re going to be friends with guys. But every little thing about the game, about the NBA season, the NBA career – it’s fragile.
“You can be on a team one day, gone the next. You can be healthy one day, injured the next. Have a job one day, fired the next. It’s a lot of things about the game that’s fragile and that’s one of them. It’s one of the more unfortunate ones.”
The game was a physical one that saw 61 fouls called and a whole lot more calls that were missed. The Blazers appeared to be in deep trouble in the fourth quarter, trailing by five with 1:47 to go. They were still down by 3 with 34 seconds left when Lillard hit a layup to pull his team within a point.
But then Seth Curry pulled off a steal from D’Angelo Russell and set sail for the basket at the other end. He was fouled, though, and went to the line with two shots and 3.5 showing on the clock.
“In that situation, I know he likes to bring it back in his left hand,” Curry said. “So I was anticipating that left hand. He kind of lost it and put it in front of me and I was able to knock it away.”
Curry missed the first foul shot, then nailed the second, Russell missed a wild three-point shot and the teams headed to overtime.
Portland had the last shot of the first overtime with 8.8 seconds left but squandered the opportunity and settled for a 34-footer from Lillard.
Nurkic fouled out two Brooklyn centers and was working against 6-7 Jared Dudley in the second overtime when the game got very physical inside.
In fact, the league’s “Last 2-minute Report” ought to be very hard on the trio of officials, who seemed unable to control the contact.
But in the end, none of that seemed to matter much to the participants, whose hearts were with Nurkic. Curry, perhaps more than anyone in the locker room, knows what it’s like to suffer a serious injury.
“I definitely don’t take it for granted,” he said of his career. “I already know how it is. My injury last season, missing the whole season. You hate to see it. Especially for somebody who had worked as hard as he had all year.
“Having his best season and having his best game. It’s unfortunate.”