Count them: 774.
That’s how many days passed for Jusuf Nurkic as he awaited to take the court in front of fans in Rip City after suffering a horrific leg injury.
Nurkic had March 15, 2020 circled on his calendar. His long-anticipated return to the court was announced, then the NBA shuttered. The coronavirus pandemic closed the league’s doors.
17 months after his injury, the Bosnian Beast would make his triumphant return to the court inside the NBA’s Bubble in Orlando, but he’d have to wait until Friday night vs. the Los Angeles Lakers to play in front of Portland fans for the first time.
“It’s a special feeling,” Nurkic said when describing his first game in front of fans since March 25, 2019. “I never felt nervous since the day that I came here. It was a special feeling. I know it’s only 10 percent capacity, but I know how this place can get loud and you can feel them.”
And it did get loud. “Jusuf-Nurkic” chants rang through the rafters at Moda Center Saturday as the Blazers blew out the Spurs 124-102 for their third-consecutive win.
Nurkic savored the moment, but he also hasn't forgotten how far he’s come in two years.
“It’s a grind,” Nurkic said. “Obviously people just see the grind, the injuries, the bad days, all the stuff we’ve been through as a human being...
With the Trail Blazers' big off of his minutes restriction, Nurkic is starting to find his stride and finesse in the Portland lineup. On Saturday night, Nurkic had 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists in 21 minutes. He also had six of Portland’s 18 offensive boards.
But one stretch in particular stood out in the third quarter as he and Damian Lillard began to gel. Blazers coach Terry Stotts praised the dynamic duo for their chemistry, but he wasn’t surprised.
“He and Nurk, going back two, three, four years, they’ve developed that and it’s very effective for us,” Stotts said.
“My chemistry with Dame is not a question,” Nurkic added. “It’s just about we have so many guys using the ball so sometimes, I don’t have opportunity, but I try to figure out my role, try to fit as easy as possible and that’s what happens sometimes.”
With Nurkic now back at full strength, the Blazers are reaping the benefits. Portland has now won seven of its last eight games and sits 39-29 just a half game behind the Dallas Mavericks for the West's fifth seed.
As the Blazers prepare for post-season play with just four games remaining, Nurkic is optimistic Portland will have a few more fans in the stands to root them on -- the same people that supported him throughout the ups and downs over the past 774 days.
“Can’t emphasize how important those fans are to us,” Nurkic said. “Hopefully we can have more by the playoffs. That would be huge for us, make a huge difference.”