Their mid-season acquisition, Jusuf Nurkic, has been a big reason why they're on the cusp of a post-season return.
Tuesday’s match-up between the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers had major consequences with regard to the Western Conference playoffs. The two teams came in tied for the eight-seed at 35-38, although the Nuggets had more to play for. The Blazers had a 2-1 head-to-head advantage coming in, and a win would’ve given them the head-to-head tiebreaker if they finished the season with identical records.
The game had the build-up of a playoff game, and it did not disappoint. Both teams brought their A-game (or something very close to it), but in the end, the Trail Blazers’ superior star power carried the day. Their dynamic duo of Damian Lillard (19 points, six rebounds, seven assists) and CJ McCollum (39 points, five rebounds, three assists), delivered as expected to seal the 122-113 win.
Nurkic haunts the Nuggets
But the star of the show for the Blazers was once again the 'Bosnian Beast', Jusuf Nurkic, who put up a career-high 33 points, with 16 rebounds, and three blocks in his first meeting against his former team. He thoroughly outplayed Nikola Jokic, the big man the Nuggets (justifiably) chose to build around over him. But Nurkic likely isn't complaining now, seeing as how great his situation has turned out in the Pacific Northwest.
Yes, Lillard has played out of his mind in March. He’s averaging nearly 30 points while shooting almost 49 percent from the floor and 42 percent from three, with 4.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists. The Blazers are 12-3 this month, and he will be a top candidate to win the Western Conference Player of the Month award.
However, the Blazers most probably wouldn’t be in the position they’re in now without Nurkic. Nurkic was considered the lesser player in the deal involving Mason Plumlee – which was why the Nuggets had to add a first-round pick – but who would’ve thought that he would actually swing the race for the final playoff spot in Portland’s favor?
Nurkic has been productive almost as soon as he got into the Blazers lineup, and his traditional stats show this. He’s averaging 14 points, 10.7 boards, 3.4 assists, and 2.1 blocks per game this month. He's played with an energy since coming to Portland that has revived what had been a decidedly mediocre Blazers team. His advanced numbers show just how big his impact has been. Nurkic has a net rating of plus-8.9 points in 19 games with the Blazers – the second-highest on the team behind Noah Vonleh during that span – after being a minus-11 per 100 possessions for the Nuggets.
He has already come up with some monster performances during his short time with the Blazers. He famously put up 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists, six blocks, and two steals against a bad Philadelphia 76ers team last month, which now looks less and less like a fluke.
Nurkic's fine play throughout the month helped get the Blazers back in a position to challenge his former team, and his career-best scoring effort against the Nuggets just about sealed a return to the playoffs for the Blazers.
Blazers have best chance to get number eight
With the win, the Blazers now have a 92 percent chance to reach the playoffs. They are now one game ahead of the Nuggets in the standings, but it should really be considered two games now that they own the tiebreaker over Denver.
The Blazers have a somewhat tricky final eight games. They still have four games against three of the top-four seeds in the West – the Rockets, the Jazz (twice) and the Spurs. However, they play three of those games at home, and six of their last eight games will be at the Moda Center.
On the flip side, the Nuggets have the inverse situation in their final eight games, with six of them coming on the road. It’ll now take a monumental effort from Nikola Jokic and his team mates to overturn that deficit in the remaining two weeks of the regular season; and it's all because of their old pal, Nurk.