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Three Things to Know: Jusuf Nurkic’s injury devastating, for him and Trail Blazers

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Jusuf Nurkic’s injury devastating, both for him and the Trail Blazers. This was just stomach turning.

With 2:22 in the second overtime between Portland and Brooklyn, Trail Blazers’ big man Jusuf Nurkic went up for an offensive rebound and when he came down he landed awkwardly, his left leg bending in ways legs simply should not ever bend. (We are not running the video in this story, if you want to see it check out our original post on the injury, but be warned this is one you may want to avoid.)

Nurkic has suffered compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula, which will require surgery and not only end this season but also the recovery will bleed into next season as well (there is no timeline for something like this, but as Jeff Stotts of the injury blog In Street Clothes noted, the only thing like this is Paul George‘s Team USA injury, and it took him eight months to get back on the court and much longer to regain his form).

This is devastating for Nurkic personally. The Bosnian big man signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension last summer, then came back better and more motivated. He has averaged a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting, his PER of 23.1, true shooting percentage of 57, value over replacement player of 3.5, and other advanced stats are all career bests. He was the anchor in the middle of the Portland defense, using his big body to cut off drives on pick-and-rolls. He was playing at an All-Star level (it’s just making that team in the West is like climbing the Matterhorn because of all the talent in the conference, including at center).

This is also devastating for the Trail Blazers — a year after getting swept out of the playoffs in the first round by New Orleans, there has been real optimism this year’s Blazers were better built to make a postseason run. Nurkic’s improved play was at the heart of that optimism.

On offense, he is the primary screen setter for Damian Lillard — the Lillard/Nurkic pairing is the second most used pick-and-roll combination in the league via NBA tracking data (D’Angelo Russell/Jarrett Allen of Brooklyn is first). Nurkic not only sets a big, solid screen, but he’s also become much better as a playmaker, meaning when teams inevitably trap Lillard to get the ball out of his hands he can dump it off to the rolling Nurkic and the big man can find the open shooter or score himself. Portland’s offense is 5.5 points per 100 possessions better this season than a season ago and Nurkic is at the heart of that improvement.

Defensively, Nurkic drops back off picks and does a good job using his size to clog the lane. When opponents try to drive on him, he’s adept at blocking and altering shots.

The problem is the drop off in talent after Nurkic at the center spot for Portland. Enes Kanter was brought in and has played the most backup minutes recently, and he is a good scorer on offense but not the playmaker that Nurkic is. However, the bigger issue with Kanter (and Meyers Leonard) is he struggles mightily to defend the pick-and-roll, something any opponent will attack in the playoffs. We may see more Zach Collins thrust into the backup five spot (he has played more four lately), he’s more mobile as a defender and can both roll or pick-and-pop on offense, but there’s a reason he’s fallen back in the Portland rotation, he is young and inconsistent.

Portland clinched a playoff spot by still getting the win over Brooklyn on Monday night, however, what seed they can hold on to is up in the air. Portland is currently the four seed in the West, 2.5 games up on the Jazz and Clippers (the Blazers are three games up in the loss column on both). Without Nurkic and C.J. McCollum as they head out on a four-game road trip (McCollum could be out much if not all of the rest of the regular season with a knee injury), the Blazers could stumble and lose out on home court in the first round.

Wherever they start the playoffs, advancing past that just got a whole lot tougher on Monday night.

2) Devin Booker puts on a show scoring 59, but Jazz dunk their way to win anyway. There were two very different offensive shows going on in Salt Lake City on Monday night. On one end, Devin Booker was just hitting everything on his way to 59 points.

On the other end of the court, the Jazz exploited the Suns’ nonexistent rim protection to put on their own dunk contest — and in the process Rudy Gobert set the NBA’s single-season record for dunks at 270 (he’s now at 275 after this game).

Utah got the win handily, 125-92. They even fouled Booker at the end of the game so he couldn’t get to 60 points (Jimmer Fredette helped with that, the new Suns’ guard jacked up some shots even when Booker was put back in the game late just to get to 60).

3) Oklahoma City’s struggles continue, this time in a loss to Memphis. A couple of months ago, Oklahoma City looked like the second-best team in the Western Conference, a team poised to make a deep playoff run — they have two elite players in Paul George (an MVP candidate) and Russell Westbrook, a stout defense led by Steven Adams, and they create matchup problems.

Or they used to. OKC has lost 5-of-6, the latest to Memphis — without Mike Conley — on Monday night. The Thunder have fallen all the way back to the eight seed (tied with San Antonio for 7/8) and could well get their nightmare scenario of facing Golden State in the first round.

The problem has been on the offensive end, where Paul George has gone into a slump, Westbrook is still putting up numbers but is not efficient, and at least Dennis Schroder seems to have gotten out of his funk. That was the case in Memphis: George had 30 points but needed 29 shots, Westbrook had 16 points on 20 shots, and Schroder was the man with 25 points on 14 shots.

Meanwhile, the star of the game was Bruno Caboclo with a career-high 24-points.

This is the second season is a row George has struggled after the All-Star break. Last season he shot 38.5 percent overall (32.4 percent from three) after the break. This season it’s 38.6 percent shooting overall and 32.9 percent from three.

George and the Thunder have eight games to get this figured out or it may not matter who OKC faces in the first round of the playoffs.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.