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The Blazers Are Back, But With Or Without Nurkic? by Chuck Strom

For those of you who didn’t follow the Portland Trail Blazers last season, their biggest story was their February trade for Jusuf Nurkic, the Bosnian Beast and the West Coast’s answer to New York Knick sensation Kristaps Porzingis. With his shooting and rebounding, Nurkic turned around the Blazers’ season, helping them to an 18-8 record after the trade and a trip to the playoffs with the 8th and final seed in the NBA’s Western Conference. Though, as expected, the Blazers were swept by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the first round, Blazer fans seemed to have good reason to look forward to the future, with Nurkic available for 82 games to complement their stellar backcourt of Damien Lillard and C. J. McCollum. No one may have equated them with the Warriors, but a playoff seeding in the top half of the Western Conference seemed a reasonable hope, at which point, with a few breaks, anything could happen.

For the first half of last Friday night’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, Nurkic looked every bit the fulfillment of those dreams, scoring almost all of his eventual 21 points and helping the Blazers to a 52-46 lead at halftime. In the second half, however, his apparent deficiencies on defense became too much for Coach Terry Stotts to take, and he benched Nurkic for almost the entire fourth quarter as the Nets, who had led by seven points at the beginning of the quarter, sealed their 101-97 win in the final minute. After the game, Stotts openly admitted his reasons for benching Nurkic, who left the locker room without speaking to reporters.

Despite Nurkic’s team-friendly media comments since, this is nothing short of an existential crisis for the Blazers. They need for him to be the Nurkic who had something to prove after his trade from the Nuggets. It speaks thick volumes that he couldn’t be trusted on the court during crunch time during the last two games. If this state of affairs continues, the Blazers will have to go back to their standard life-and-death reliance on Lillard’s and McCollum’s shooting. Entertaining as that path may be, it will lead at best to another 8th playoff seed and first-round wipeout.

I’m rooting for Nurkic to turn things around. The sky is still the limit with the Bosnian Beast manning the paint.

Chuck Strom

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