March 13, 2018, 1:38 am
The Portland Trail Blazers will need to make a decision regarding Jusuf Nurkic at some point in the near future. And when that time comes, it’s safe to say performances like this one will be weighing heavily in the minds of Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts and Paul Allen.
The Blazers beat the Miami Heat 115-99 on Monday night, extending their league-best winning streak to 10 games and earning their 16th victory in their last 17 tries at Moda Center. Nurkic was the star from the opening tip, taking full advantage of Hassan Whiteside‘s absence to wreak havoc in the paint on both ends of the floor. He finished with 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks on 10-of-16 shooting frustrating the short-handed Heat with equal parts physicality and finesse. Damian Lillard shook off early shooting struggles to notch a ho-hum 32 points and 10 assists, operating the game with absolute precision – especially when Miami made a run midway through the fourth quarter – via the shot, dribble and pass.
For awhile, it seemed as if Lillard’s normal late-game heroics wouldn’t be necessary. Nurkic sparked his team to a commanding 16-point lead after three quarters by feasting on rolls to the rim and simply shooting over the top of the Heat’s defenders, most notably and often rookie Bam Adebayo, like they weren’t even there. As Terry Stotts told ESPN commentator P.J. Carlesimo during the in-game coach’s interview, a sizable majority of Nurkic’s scores came courtesy of early-offense ball-screen action with Lillard. The Blazers scored their first points of the game on that simple set, and milked it over and over until Erik Spoelstra finally relented, going even smaller and amping up the Heat’s pick-and-roll coverage late.
It wasn’t all size and strength for the Bosnian beast, though. He spun around a defender before flipping in a backhanded layup after yet another side ball screen in the third quarter, and made big plays late by finding Evan Turner for a corner triple and backdoor layup as Miami was trying to stage a last-gasp comeback. An even better encapsulation of Nurkic’s dominant night, though, was when Adebayo walked into a called iso and challenged him at the rim. The Heat, believe it or not, didn’t run that play again.
— NBA (@NBA) March 13, 2018
Lillard didn’t make his first and only two-pointer until there was one minute and 40 seconds left in the third quarter. He’d done a lot of his damage only minutes prior, too, but it all came from beyond the arc. Lillard’s consecutive triples in the opening minutes of the second half both got him off the snide and stanched a mini Miami run that should have been its last, putting the Blazers up 69-57.
Watching from the bench as his team coughed up turnovers and failed to contain Justise Winslow, Lillard was summoned back into the game by Stotts with Portland’s lead cut to six less than halfway through the fourth quarter. After the Heat closed to 93-90 on a three by Tyler Johnson, the Blazers’ superstar answered with a triple of his own. He did this just over two minutes later, ending the Heat’s realistic chances of victory and adding another cold-blooded dagger to a season-long highlight reel that’s getting overcrowded with them.
— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) March 13, 2018
Nurkic and Lillard were fantastic, but didn’t beat Miami all by themselves. C.J. McCollum had 17 points and five assists, while Turner stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, three rebounds, four assists and two steals off the bench. Zach Collins scored all 10 of his points in an extremely encouraging first-half performance that included two 3-pointers, four rebounds and stellar individual defense on Winslow on the perimeter. Stotts is no doubt thrilled with his team’s defensive effort, one that yielded a true shooting percentage of 50.5 accomplished by all-court connectivity and activity, especially in the paint, where Miami shot a dismal 23-of-52.
It’s always instructive to put wins and losses in perspective. The Heat were playing without Whiteside and Dwyane Wade, and have now lost eight straight road games after falling to 36-32, eighth in the Eastern Conference. This was a convincing victory for Portland, but not one worthy of excessive celebration or any big-picture takeaways about the team’s present and future. Well, except for the play of Nurkic, maybe, but even that warrants the caveats of Whiteside’s absence, Adebayo’s lack of size and experience and the crucial helping hands of his teammates in side ball screens. Nurkic doesn’t play like this every night for a reason, basically.
But is it possible he could? That’s the question Olshey and company will have to ask themselves this summer come restricted free agency. And with the wins mounting and their grasp strengthening on home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the Blazers and their fans are probably asking themselves a similar one right now: Are we really this good?
Both questions, for good or bad, will be answered in due time.