Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic have built up a strong camaraderie since their days of playing together in Denver.
Now, the two NBA bigs will face off against one another during the 2021 NBA playoffs. On Sunday, the Blazers came away with a 132-116 win over the Nuggets to claim a playoff berth and escape the league’s postseason play-in tournament.
In doing so, Portland also locked in the conference’s six seed, and now knows its opponent in the first-round: the Denver Nuggets.
After Sunday’s game, Jokic spoke about his relationship with Nurkic and why the Bosnian Beast prevents a challenge for Denver, especially since he wasn’t on the court when the two teams met in the 2019 Western Conference semifinals.
“We knew there was option of course that we were going to play them, and he’s a good guy,” Jokic said. “He worked with us, seems like a while ago, and he’s a talented player, man...
The Nuggets dealt Nurkic to Portland in Feb. 2017 in exchange for center Mason Plumlee. Denver’s plan was initially to pair the two young seven-footers together with Jokic playing power forward next to Nurk, but the experiment soured and Nurkic became the odd man out.
Despite the unceremonious end to his tenure in Denver, Nurkic remained close with Jokic.
“Our relationship has never been like cold or any media-stuff, when they do their part,” Nurkic said. “But we talking, texting, obviously the COVID got in the way. We never, really much since the Bubble, we couldn’t go out and dinners in stuff. Our relationship was even there when I was there, really good.”
Nurkic thinks so highly of his former Nuggets teammate that he believes Jokic is worthy of an Most Valuable Player of the Year nod. That is, if Bosnian Beast’s current teammate, Damian Lillard, doesn’t receive the prestigious award.
“He’s playing on such a high level right now whole season,” Nurkic explained. “If Dame not going to win MVP, I think he gonna win MVP. He should win MVP. I will not be mad at all. I’ll be happy for him.”
While the two bruising bigs have gone head-to-head throughout the regular season on numerous occasions, Nurkic has never suited up against Jokic in the playoffs. The Blazers seven-footer was sidelined in 2019 after sustaining a broken leg against the Brooklyn Nets in March 2019.
Nurkic did play in the 2020 postseason, as the Blazers battled it out against the Grizzlies inside the NBA Bubble’s play-in tournament. Portland was gassed by the playoffs, falling to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in the first-round series.
Unlike last year’s playoffs, where many of Portland’s key players were either sidelined with injuries or playing through them, the Blazers are nearly at full strength heading into the postseason. Only Zach Collins was listed on Portland’s injury report ahead of Sunday’s game.
After battling through adversity, Nurkic is ready to make the most of his opportunity in the playoffs, starting with a game against his former team next weekend.
“I’m excited for playoffs and like I said that position was taken away from me, so I’m definitely not going to take it for granted,” Nurkic said.