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Nurkic’s heart may be ready to burst, but because of him, Trail Blazers’ bubble won’t

The Portland Trail Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic throws up his arms against the Memphis Grizzlies on. Aug. 15, 2020.
Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic, who played Saturday after the death of his grandmother, had 22 points and 21 rebounds in a play-in game victory against Memphis.
(Kevin C. Cox / Pool Photo via Associated Press)

Even though they would’ve had another chance had the Memphis Grizzlies won, this felt like an all-or-nothing afternoon for the Portland Trail Blazers, a team mentally winded from the pressure of the playoff race over the last two weeks.

A loss would’ve stolen the momentum gained in rallying into the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard had been the best player in the bubble, but it could have gone for naught if one deep three missed off the front rim instead of somehow going in, the millimeter difference between the chance the Trail Blazers have now and a season on the brink.

On Saturday, the Trail Blazers had to overcome all of that and so much more in a 126-122 win against the Grizzlies, an intensity-packed game that made the NBA’s addition of a playoff play-in series look like a stroke of genius.

Everywhere you looked on the court, story lines appeared like billboards off the 405 — each one in large, bold font. The legend the league left behind? He hit maybe the biggest shot in the game (after missing his five previous three-point attempts). The player with the broken back? He put his team on it. The league’s premier leader? With the defense focused on him, he was content to follow.

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But for as much as Carmelo Anthony overcame, to stay in a league that stopped valuing his skill set, convinced he couldn’t function as a supporting actor, for as much physical pain as CJ McCollum played through and for as consistently terrific as Lillard has been, none of it could compare with what Jusuf Nurkic had to do.

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Just before his team took the court to earn its spot into the playoffs, Nurkic announced on Instagram that his grandmother had died in Bosnia. Nurkic had told reporters he almost didn’t rejoin the team in the bubble because she was back home trying to fight the novel coronavirus, which at one point put her in a coma.

“Our prayers are with him,” McCollum said.

Nurkic had 22 points and 21 rebounds in 41 minutes, his fatigue so clearly enveloping him as the Trail Blazers tried to win.

“Obviously, it was emotional. I couldn’t be more proud of him,” coach Terry Stotts said. “… I just think you could tell that it was on his mind.”

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For Nurkic, who turns 26 this month, the return in the bubble has been a reminder of his talent. After missing more than a year with a broken leg he suffered in March 2019, he’s been almost rust-free in Orlando, averaging 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds.

“He’s amazing,” Lillard said.

In the last two seasons, Portland has been a hub of adversity. Owner Paul Allen died. Video coordinator Jonathan Yim was severely injured in a car accident. Rodney Hood, a hero from last year’s playoffs, ruptured his Achilles tendon in early December, one of a handful of injuries that ravaged Portland’s depth (and serendipitously forced the team to look to Anthony). Then there was the pandemic and the fight for racial equality, and starter Trevor Ariza opted out of the restart.

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Through it all, the Trail Blazers have remained steadfast, even as the losses piled up during a disappointing season. But once word of a reboot began to move around the NBA, Lillard spoke up and made one thing clear.

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He wouldn’t waste his time with a trip. He wanted Portland to have a pathway to the postseason. And his message resonated.

“It just shows the character of the guys on our team,” Lillard said.

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Gentry out, Lue in?

New Orleans fired coach Alvin Gentry after five seasons, making the decision after the team flopped in Orlando, going just 2-6 after most experts believed it had the best shot to earn a spot in the play-in tournament. The Pelicans made just one postseason appearance in Gentry’s five seasons.

One name to keep an eye on is Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue, who won a title as coach in Cleveland with Pelicans executive David Griffin.

Between New Orleans, Chicago and Brooklyn, there are three relatively high-profile positions available for coaching free agents.


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