Blazers win without Nurkic
It's back to the old, and somewhat familiar, drawing board for the Trail Blazers.
Without injured center Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers are forced to return to some of their old ways, old offensive sets and old plays.
They did that well enough Saturday to continue their recent winning ways, as they outscored the Phoenix Suns 130-117 at Moda Center.
Phoenix has lost 11 in a row.
Portland is 14-3 in its past 17 games — and now 1-0 since Nurkic went down for at least the rest of the regular season with a broken bone in his right leg.
Without Nurkic, the Blazers had no trouble scoring points, but they did give up 60 points in the paint, 21 second-chance points and 50.7-percent shooting, and they had to make one last spurt after the Suns had gone from 25 points down to within four early in the fourth quarter.
In the end, though, Portland was never threatened, and extended its season-best winning streak to six games to move one step closer to clinching the No. 8 playoff spot in the NBA's Western Conference.
Damian Lillard had 31 points and CJ McCollum 29 to pace Portland.
"It was different," Lillard said, of playing without Nurkic.
Lillard said he was "disappointed" to lose Nurkic "because I felt like having him out there made us such a better team."
Portland's approach against the Suns reminded Lillard of how the Blazers played before the Bosnian 7-footer arrived via the trade that sent center Mason Plumlee to Denver.
"Tonight was more perimeter-oriented, with a lot more flares and high ball screens and swing (the ball) action, playing to the weak side," Lillard said. "It was a lot more of those types of things we did with 'Mase.' I think it helps that we've had to play this way before. But obviously not having 'Nurk' out there is different, so it's going to be an adjustment."
The Blazers, who spread the court more without Nurkic, is 38-38 and 2 1/2 games ahead of Denver (35-40), which was idle.
The Blazers will play four of their remaining six games at home -- and they own the tiebreaker over Denver by virtue of their 3-1 season series edge.
Portland also is at .500 for the first time since being 12-12 after a Dec. 8 victory at Memphis.
"It's been a long season, a long journey," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of the work it took to get back to .500. "But we're not done yet."
Phoenix (22-55) got 31 points from guard Devin Booker. Forward TJ Warren had 25 points, and forward Marquese Chriss added 19 points and 13 rebounds.
That was enough to turn a blowout into a close game, briefly, but Phoenix led only at 2-0 and 4-2.
"I loved the way we started the game," Stotts said. "I think it was difficult to main that level through the game."
The Blazers played some small ball, at times even using 6-9 Al-Farouq Aminu at center. Stotts said part of the reason for that was the uniqueness of Phoenix, a smaller team itself.
Lillard said it will take "a collective effort" for the Nurkic-less Blazers to be as effective as they have been in recent weeks.
All Nurkic had done since his arrival via trade with Denver on Feb. 13 was help turn the Blazers' fortunes around dramatically. The 22-year-old provided a spark, a boost in team confidence, a defensive presence in the middle, low-post scoring and passing, and a potent pick-and-roll weapon.
With Nurkic, the Blazers posted the NBA's best March record at 13-3. He was averaging 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game for Portland.
Meyers Leonard started at center for the Blazers on Saturday. He finished with seven points and four rebounds in 21 minutes.
"I feel like I can help us. I see this as an opportunity," said Leonard, who kept a scheduled dinner date with Nurkic on Friday night at a local steakhouse. "Nurk obviously has come to Portland and done an incredible job for us. I just have to be solid out there."
Phoenix coach Earl Watson said before the game that, with Nurkic out, he expected to see Lillard and McCollum assert themselves even more and even sooner in the game. The two Blazer guards did that to some extent. Portland shot out to a 24-6 lead in the first six minutes, with Lillard and McCollum combining for nine points.
The Blazers led 37-21 after one quarter, 63-53 at halftime and 97-87 after three quarters. Portland led by as many as 19 points in the first frame, by 25 in the second, by 17 in the third and by 19 in the fourth.
In a span of 2:11 early in the fourth quarter, the Blazers rebuilt their lead from four points to 18.
Watson was relatively pleased, all in all, as coach of a team that is 22-55 but not rolling over.
"The effort's always good. Our young guys play hard, they play aggressive," Watson said of the Suns, who are the youngest squad in the NBA.
Making a game of it in the second half and competing against Lillard and McCollum "was a good game for our young guys to experience," Watson said.
Booker agreed, noting that "it's not many times that rookies get this many minutes or get the start, so us as a young group have to come together and play like we're trying to do something here. … We've got to get ready for next year, and I think that starts now."
The Blazers now go to Minnesota for a makeup game on Monday and then visit Utah on Tuesday, before finishing their regular season with four games at home.
Nurkic's fractured right fibula, discovered after an MRI exam on Friday, remains on their minds.
"He's disappointed. He feels bad," Stotts said. "He's been in a good place. We've been in a good place."
Nurkic won't travel with the team for games Monday at Minnesota and Tuesday at Utah. About all the Blazers can do is wait and see if Nurkic can return for any playoff games. "He'll be re-evaluated in two weeks," Stotts said.
Lillard said he'll miss "having the option to throw (the ball) to a guy (Nurkic) on the block that could go get the bucket with a lot of confidence, can make plays on the block, but also (give the Blazers) that rim protection.
"Guys got to step up, and we've got to be able to lean on multiple guys to kind of fill that hole."