Blazers get 'keys to the car'
CJ McCollum was a scorer possessed, Jusuf Nurkic channeled Bill Walton in his prime, and the Trail Blazers rolled to their most important victory of the season Tuesday night at Moda Center.
And suddenly Portland, swimming upstream almost since opening night, has pole position on a playoff berth heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
A 122-113 win over Denver puts the Blazers (36-38) a game ahead of the Nuggets (35-39) in the battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Blazers have a favorable remaining schedule (six home games, two on the road compared to two at home and six on the road for Denver) and the tiebreaker (a 3-1 series advantage).
"You're in the driver's seat when you control your own destiny," Portland's Damian Lillard said. "We got in the driver's seat after the Lakers game (a 97-81 win Sunday), but we didn't have the key to the car.
"Tonight was a battle for the keys to the car. We got the keys; now we have to control where it's going. We know what the destination is, but we have to make sure to stay locked in to get it to where we need to go."
The sub-plot all but overpowered the main theme Tuesday night, with a sellout throng of 20,003 playing a role in the proceedings. Nurkic was going against the team that sent him to Portland on Feb. 13 in a trade that brought center Mason Plumlee to the Nuggets.
Nurkic insisted in the days leading up to the game that it wouldn't be personal, and he said the same thing after scoring a career-high 33 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and blocking three shots in an All-Star-caliber performance against the team that gave him away.
But it was.
"I knew he'd be ready to play," said McCollum, who bombed in 39 points in one of the best shooting performances of his career. "He's had this game circled since he got here.
"We have a slogan for the big Nurk: 'From the bench to the playoffs.' We knew he'd be aggressive, he'd be efficient. He did what we expected."
McCollum was sensational in his own right, sinking 15 of 24 shots from the field, 3 of 5 from beyond the arc and 6 of 6 from the line. He had five rebounds, three assists and only one turnover in a 40-minute masterpiece, coming within four points of his career scoring high.
"McCollum had a great night, and Nurkic kicked our ass," said Denver coach Michael Malone, adding a malaprop: "Those two guys singlehandedly won the game for them."
McCollum was deadly, but was overshadowed by his teammate in the middle.
Nurkic had begun the season as a starter alongside Nikola Jokic in Denver, but coach Michael Malone decided the experiment wasn't working and turned Nurkic into a reserve. That didn't set well with the 7-foot, 280-pound third-year NBA player, who asked for a trade.
On Tuesday night, Nurkic shoved it up his former employer's derrière, sinking 12 of 15 shots from the field and 9 of 11 from the free-throw line. The player the Nuggets chose to keep as their starting center, Jokic, was solid with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. But there was no question who the best big man on the floor was — and he wasn't representing the visiting quintet.
"I was really happy for Nurk," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "I know how it is any time you face a former team. That carries a little added significance for that player.
"This was the most important game he's played in the NBA, with playoff implications. And he was fantastic."
Nurkic was magnanimous afterward, insisting it hadn't been personal — at least not with his former teammates. Each of them took the time to seek him out on the court after the game for a hug and a few words.
"I love those guys," he said. "I'm happy to see them and to talk to them. it's always nice to see friends when you've spent three years with them."
But wasn't there incentive to show the Nuggets what they're missing?
"They know," Nurkic said. "They know what they're missing. (The players) are really happy for me, that I found my spot. I'm happy for me, too."
During the game, Nurkic was animated, gesturing to the crowd to roar while on the court, cheering for teammates while off it.
"It's fun to see the crowd in Portland," he said. "It's a pleasure to play in front of that crowd. I really want to hear how loud they can be."
"MVP!" a small faction of fans chanted while he was at the foul line in the first half. "Ju-suf Nur-kic!" the fans chanted much more loudly in the fourth quarter, with the issue decided.
"I heard them," he said with a grin. "And when they did that, I missed (two of three) free throws."
Nurkic seemed a bit embarrassed at the fuss.
"I'm the new guy here still," he said. "I wish I started the season with this team. They're going to see me a lot.
"No way in my mind we could lose this game. But nothing's done. We're not finished yet. We have a lot of fight to do."
When Nurkic exited the floor with 19 seconds to play, he was greeted by a standing ovation from the fans — and a mob scene with teammates on the bench.
Lillard believes his teammate's performance was sort of a karmic convergence.
"I believe things are supposed to happen a certain way," he said. "Nurk is a great teammate. When things don't go well for him in a game, he's the first person off the bench. He's cheering, staying engaged. "When he came to us, he fit in so well. He's a genuinely good person — very blunt, but a good person. You appreciate having a guy like that around. And he cares. He wants to win. Things tend to work in the favor of guys like that."
Lillard said he had a conversation with Nurkic Monday night.
"I told him, 'I think it's going to go real well for you,' " Lillard said. "Right away early, some of the shots he threw up when he might have gotten hit a little bit, they went in. In my head, I thought, 'I was right about it. It's going to be his night.'
"CJ got going, but Nurk making those shots, going to the line, that was huge for our team. When the crowd starting chanting, I was happy for him. It was like, 'Your old team gets to seen how this crowd is behind you.' "
When it was suggested to Stotts that it seemed like playoff atmosphere, the coach demurred.
"It's hard to replicate a playoff feel in the regular season," he said. "Certainly, the level of play was high and the fans were into it. But seldom do I think a regular-season game meets the playoff standard."
Said Lillard: "In the playoffs, the value of each possession goes up. The attention to detail goes up. Tonight, we understood it had big playoff implications, with what it meant for both teams. I agree with coach Stotts, but it was a huge game."
When it was over, the Blazers piped Nurkic's interview with sideline reporter Brooke Olzendam over the public-address system. During the interview, he had a message for his ex-teammates: "I wish those guys a happy summer."
Over the next two weeks, we'll see if Nurkic's words come back to haunt him.
NOTES: Portland's next action is Thursday night at home against Houston. … The Blazers matched a season high with their fourth straight win. … Plumlee looked awkward and nervous, going scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting with three rebounds in 16 reserve minutes. … Al-Farouq Aminu played a big role off the Portland bench with 15 points, nine rebounds and some effective defense in 28 minutes. The rest of the Blazer bench combined for 3-for-18 shooting. … The Blazers shot .495 from the field, had only nine turnovers and held Denver to 49 second-half points. … Both teams shot superbly in the first half — Denver .545, Portland .519. … Portland has won 14 of the last 16 meetings with Denver overall, including eight straight at home.
Stotts, asked before the game if he would attempt to calm down Nurkic before playing against his former team: "I'm not one to calm players down. I like them playing with energy." … Malone had a little different take on Plumlee: "The emotions are going to be there. Playing against his former team, big game, if you go out there and try to do too much, you get yourself in trouble." … Stotts on Plumlee: "He's doing for them what he did for us. He handles the ball, makes plays, runs the floor. (The difference is) he's coming off the bench and giving their second unit a nice burst." … Malone said Nurkic isn't playing differently than he did with the Nuggets: "He started 25 games for us. We looked to post him up at times on the left block. He's a more than capable passer, a guy who will protect the basket at times. For us, it was a matter of having a starting center in Jokic. (Nurkic) has come here and given them a boost, and I'm happy for him."
With the disparity in home and road games remaining for both clubs, Malone was asked prior to the game if the Nuggets considered it a must-win. "We don't approach it like that," he said. "We know it's a big game, but we'll have eight games to go. Not one time has anyone on this staff uttered to our players, 'Tonight is a must-win.' If we do that and we lose, then our players are saying, 'The season is over because we've failed.' That's not the message. We've taken it one game at a time throughout the season. … regardless of the result tonight, we have to be ready to go to Charlotte and play at a high level to beat them (on Friday)." … In the first three games against Denver, Portland shot .309 (26 for 82) from 3-point range. The Blazers entered Tuesday's game shooting .374 from beyond the arc this season. The trend continued as Portland shot .296 (8 for 27) from the 3-point line Tuesday night … Denver came in ranked No. 1 in the NBA in rebounding percentage. Portland was 14th. The Blazers won the board battle 48-47, grabbing 16 off the offensive glass that led to 28 second-chance points.