A Beast of a game
Meyers Leonard had dressed and was set to leave the Trail Blazers locker room Thursday night, but not before making an announcement to the attendant media.
"For anyone wondering," Leonard said, gesturing to the big man dressing a couple of stalls down, "he's really good, man."
Jusuf Nurkic certainly is — Wilt Chamberlain-like, even, in his performance in a 114-108 overtime victory over Philadelphia at Moda Center.
But you won't get the "Bosnian Beast" to toss verbal bouquets at himself.
"I don't like to talk about me," the 7-foot, 280-pound center said after delivering career highs in points (28), rebounds (20) assists (eight) and blocked shots (six) in 38 golden minutes. "I'm going to show it on the court. … I'm not a big fan of (talking about himself). Sorry."
Others were more willing to bestow plaudits on the 22-year-old man-child who has captured the heart of the city since arriving in the Feb. 13 trade that sent Mason Plumlee to Denver.
"That's the most dominant performance by an interior player against us all year," Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said.
"He was a beast, for sure," said Damian Lillard, who chipped in 24 points in the win.
"He made the game look easy," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "He had the eight assists early, and I was hoping we'd be able to get a triple-double out of him. But his rebounds, his presence in the paint — he had an outstanding game."
Nurkic was playing behind another great young post man, Nikola Jokic, in Denver and had grown frustrated with his situation. He is making it clear he likes his expanded role with the resurgent Blazers (28-35), who have won four straight games for the first time all season.
"All my life was about proving (doubters) wrong, but I'm not worried about that," said Nurkic, who was 9 for 18 from the field and 10 for 13 from the free-throw line. "All that's on my mind right now is helping this team make the playoffs.
"To be honest, I am playing minutes (for the) first time in my three years. I just enjoy it. I'm here. This is my home. I feel like that. I want to be here."
Nurkic blocked four shots in the game's first four minutes and had tied his previous career high of five before the first quarter ended.
"He scored in so many ways," Lillard said. "He rebounded. He passed the ball really well. He protected the paint. (On defense) we can close out guys on the perimeter and force them to the paint and he's cleaning up down there, blocking everything. The ones he doesn't get to, he changes the shots."
And yet through all of it, Portland very nearly lost to the woebegone 76ers (23-41), who traded away Nerlens Noel and Ersan Ilyasova and have lost Joel Embiid for the season due to a knee injury. The Blazers made only 6 of 21 3-point attempts, committed 19 turnovers and were taken to the wire by a Philadelphia team that missed 13 of 15 shots to start the game.
"It was good to get a win, but it was disappointing to see some of the things that ended up happening to get us to (overtime)," Stotts said. "For us to compete for a playoff spot, we have to be more consistent with our effort. We have to make better decisions when it matters. We can't have lulls.
"I told the team, 'I'm glad we won, but we need to learn from it.' But I'd rather learn from a win than a loss at this point of the season."
Said Nurkic: "We should have had an easier win. Not easy, definitely. We respect everybody, and those guys lost a lot of close games. But I take any win and worry about the next one, game by game."
The Sixers, getting a season-high 28 points and nine rebounds from rookie forward Dario Saric and 24 points and a career-high 13 boards from forward Robert Covington, kept things close the entire way.
Covington, though, made a huge blunder with the score tied 95-95, intentionally fouling Portland's CJ McCollum with 19.6 seconds left in regulation.
McCollum made both free throws for a 97-95 lead. Covington redeemed himself by scoring on a put-back as time expired to force overtime, but still.
Did Covington think the Blazers were ahead?
"He clearly did," Brown said. "That's the type of mistake that he just doesn't make.
"To his credit, he found a way to get a put-back and give us a chance in overtime. He had a great game. That particular mental mistake happened, and we move on."
Nurkic scored seven points and Lillard six in the overtime period. Lillard scored six straight points, the latter two with free throws that gave Portland a 110-106 edge with 40 seconds left. The 76ers were to get no closer.
Portland moved within a half-game of Denver (29-35) in the race for eighth place in the Western Conference, with Dallas (27-36) one game back of the Blazers and Minnesota (26-37) two games behind them. The Blazers aren't yet claiming momentum.
"We were good enough to win tonight," said McCollum, who finished with 23 points. "We had a lot of mistakes, but at this point, you just want to win.
"We're winning some games we're supposed to win. We're taking advantage of playing at home, trying to win as many games as we can. Beating sub-.500 teams is the way to get in (the playoffs)."
Nurkic is still learning his teammates, and what he can do within Stotts' offensive system.
"I've been telling him, 'You can do these things you're doing all the time,'" Lillard said. "You can see the skill set. He's so calm when he's dribbling up court. It's not the passes he's making, it's how he's making them. It's like effortless. It's a part of his package. Making free throws, knocking down the mid-range jumper. … He's so big, he's able to score on guys on the block and they have to foul him.
"It's hard to do what he did tonight on a consistent basis, but 20 points, 12 rebounds, a couple of blocks and assists — he can do that regularly."
Said Stotts: "I don't know if you can play much better than tonight statistically, but I think he's going to continually get better."
Nurkic agrees with his coach.
"It's just the beginning," he said. "I love it here. I appreciate what the city is doing for me, and the fans. I just want to give them something back.
"I just worry about winning games right now. I just try to help my team to win. I'm definitely happy to be on the court, healthy, and enjoying the game."
So isn't Nurkic feeling on top of the world these days?
"Nah," he said, continuing his modest tack. "I'm going to stay on the ground."
NOTES: Nurkic is the first NBA player to collect at least 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists and six blocks since Charles Barkley in 1986. Nurkic is the first Blazer with a 20/20 game since LaMarcus Aldridge in January 2014. … Nurkic said he is hearing plenty from family and friends in Bosnia. "Everybody watch," he said. "I know a lot of people are watching because they know I'm going to be on the court and I'm going to get to play. The whole country is like wake up." … Stotts was asked before the game if he were aware how quickly Blazer fans have taken to Nurkic. "Nurkic Fever? Why not?" he said with a laugh. … Portland has played eight overtime games this season, more than any other team. The Blazers are 4-4 in those games. … The Blazers tied a season high with 12 blocks. … The 76ers have lost six of their last seven games. … Former Blazers Gerald Henderson (14 points) and Sergio Rodriguez (eight points, six assists, no turnovers in 22 minutes) had strong games off the bench for Philadelphia.