Less-than-100 percent Nurkic not enough
The Trail Blazers went into Saturday night's game with a lot on the line, but when coach Terry Stotts came to the podium two hours before tip-off, only one thing seemed to be on people's minds: Would Portland center Jusuf Nurkic play?
Nurkic had missed nine games with a leg injury, including the first two games of the NBA first-round playoff series against Golden State.
"How he feels is the biggest concern. If he's available, he will probably start. He will probably play limited minutes," Stotts said.
Then, at approximately 6:08 p.m., it was announced that Nurkic, aka "The Bosnian Beast," would be in the starting lineup.
"(Nurkic) is a big body that (the Blazers) can throw the ball to in the low post," said Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown, who filled in as the head man Saturday due to the absence of an ailing Steve Kerr. "He's a legit scoring threat. And not only that, he's involved a lot in their pick-and-rolls. He's great after setting that screen. He's great going to the rim, so it puts a lot of pressure on the back side defensively when he does do that."
Brown also talked about Nurkic's passing ability, which would up being on display many times over the course of Game 3.
"He's a good passer. They will play with him at the top of the floor and at the elbows, using his passing ability. He can be a handful, and I haven't even talked about the rebounding," Brown said.
Nurkic knew that if the Warriors won Game 3, it would be nearly impossible for Portland to win four in a row against a team of Golden State's caliber. So even though he was not 100 percent, he wanted to give it a go.
"I wanted to play. I wanted to give it a shot. Fortunately, I told the team and the coach (Stotts). It's my decision," he said.
Nurkic didn't know he would be in the lineup until less than two hours before game time. He had not practiced, only shot around, but he looked good enough in warmups to play.
"(I was) pretty good (warming up), but you know, game speed is different. I'm excited," he said before Game 3. "I love this city and the fans. I want to see how crazy they can be."
He didn't like missing Games 1 and 2 in Oakland, California, and seeing the Blazers lose both.
"If I was healthy from the start, it would be a different situation," Nurkic said. "We (are) down two, and we feel like this is our first game. It's our house, and we try to protect tha. I am a team player, and I am going to try and help my teammates win. That is all that matters. The guys know I am a tough person."
But, despite the energy and emotion of Portland coming into the game, the Warriors came into Moda Center and put ice on Blazer fans' "Nurkic Fever," winning 119-113.
"I was surprised," Portland guard CJ McCollum said of learning that Nurkic would be playing. "Seeing the progress he was making day-to-day, I didn't think he was going to play. You've got to credit him for gutting it out and fighting for us and giving us some good minutes. Obviously, he was a shell of himself."
Despite playing a pedestrian 17 minutes, Nurkic was able to lead the Blazers with 11 rebounds — the most by a Trail Blazers player in his postseason debut since Sam Bowie had 14 rebounds at Dallas on April 18, 1985.
Nurkic only had two points on 1-for-3 shooting, but he made his presence felt in several different areas, including leading the team in plus/minus with a plus-8.
The Blazers made a point to get Nurkic involved early in the game. He turned the ball over on his first touch, but he was able to make an impact in different areas in his first five minutes.
After getting the ball in the post, Nurkic found a cutting Damian Lillard, who hit a floater for the first Portland points. On the next Blazers possession, Nurkic was doubled on the block, so he kicked the ball back out to the perimeter, leading to a 3 from Blazers forward Moe Harkless.
Nurkic's first points would come moments later, when he got the ball down low against Warriors center Zaza Pachulia. After pounding against Pauchulia's chest a couple times, Nurkic muscled up a jump hook off the backboard, sending the crowd of 20,177 into early eruption mode.
The Warriors settled for some deep outside shots and were unable to get the ball into the paint early in the first quarter.
Nurkic was put back in the game in the opening minute of the second quarter. David West took advantage of Nurkic's lack of quickness by beating him to the rim, but Nurkic came back with a hockey assist to Al-Farouq Aminu to put the Blazers up 41-32.
The Blazers would extend their lead to 51-35 when Nurkic drew a double-team in the middle and found an open Evan Turner for an easy dunk.
"I was happy he played. The crowd loved to see him," Turner said.
"The Beast" picked up where he left off to start the third quarter, finding Turner open in the corner for 3.
After Nurkic had a physical play with Warriors forward Draymond Green, Stotts took his 7-footer out with 7:53 remaining in the third quarter and the Blazers up 75-62. By the look of things, Nurkic was frustrated to be headed to the sidelines.
"I'm playing with a broken leg. I can't be in the game a long time," Nurkic said later. "It's about momentum. It's about how (Stotts) feels at the time. I gave it my best. I wish I was healthy."
During the final 7:53 of the third quarter, the Warriors outscored the Blazers 25-13 and cut the Portland lead to one going into the fourth period.
"(Golden State) made a lot of tough shots. I think our turnovers and us not getting the ball to the rim … sometimes we didn't get a shot up … that led to transition, and sometimes guys got behind us," Lillard said. "(Andre Iguodala) got behind us a few times. Other times, they just scrambled. We've just got to be able to manage them good enough to win the game."
Center JaVale McGee was a key piece for the Warriors off the bench, scoring 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and at plus-24, the best mark of the game.
Brown admitted he sent in McGee when Nurkic was out to take advantage of the smaller Portland lineup.
"After the last couple games, we felt like when (Portland) went small, JaVale did a nice job rebounding and catching lobs on the back side off dribble penetration," Brown said. "We wanted to try to get him going against their smaller lineup, and he did a fantastic job."
Nurkic checked in for his final run with 10:26 remaining and the Blazers down 93-90. He found Aminu for a jam on his first offensive possession of the period, then pulled a defensive rebound away from Warriors forward David West.
But on his last play of his night, Nurkic fouled Warriors guard Ian Clark going to the hoop, and Clark dropped in the floater that put Golden State ahead 100-96.
Nurkic was replaced by Noah Vonleh with 6:30 left, and the Blazers didn't have what it took to finish the game successfully without him.
"There's no excuses. We didn't do a good enough job closing out the game," McCollum said.
When Nurkic was asked in the locker room if he would play in Game 4, he didn't have a clear answer.
"It's not about me. We'll make a decision together," he said.
If Nurkic was 100 percent, the series probably would look different. But the Blazers vowed to keep battling.
"It's about being positive right now," Nurkic said. "Nobody wants to get swept."