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

Associated Press
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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.