Grieving Nurkic carries Blazers to No. 8 seedon August 15, 2020 at 11:08 pm

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Less than two hours after announcing to the world that his grandmother had died from COVID-19 on Saturday, Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic walked to center court, rubbed his face and loudly clapped his hands together.

“I didn’t want to play,” Nurkic said after the game. “I think she made me play.”

Because Nurkic did play, Portland is now in the NBA playoffs.

Nurkic put up a dominant performance inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort on Saturday, finishing with 22 points, 21 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks in 41 minutes to power the Blazers to a 126-122 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

As a result, Portland advanced to the NBA playoffs, where the Blazers will face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round Tuesday.

It took every ounce of energy and effort the Blazers had, however, to survive a young Memphis squad that, despite missing star young big man Jaren Jackson Jr. and backup point guard Tyus Jones, still led for a large chunk of the second half and hit more than 50% of its 3-pointers.

And, unlike in most of Portland’s wins here, it wasn’t Damian Lillard who carried the Blazers home. That doesn’t mean Lillard, who was deservedly named the bubble’s MVP earlier Saturday, wasn’t good; he was actually terrific with 32 points and 10 assists, including driving into the lane and hitting Carmelo Anthony in the corner for what turned out to be a game-clinching 3-pointer.

But this time, he took just two shots in the fourth quarter as CJ McCollum, who scored 14 of his 29 points in the fourth, and Nurkic, who made several terrific plays at the defensive end down the stretch, were the primary players pushing Portland over the finish line.

“I was thinking I want to play again tomorrow,” McCollum told ESPN’s Lisa Salters with a laugh after the game. “We had to get this done tonight, [and] make sure we came in and finished them off. We’re thankful to be in a position to be able to make the playoffs, and we didn’t want to squander an opportunity.”

Despite McCollum’s dramatic shot-making late in the game, the story of the day was Nurkic, who was clearly emotional on the court as he was still trying to process the death of his grandmother, which he had announced on his Instagram page shortly before Saturday’s tip.

“I already came all the season to be with the team and stay here, so might as well think she want me to play,” Nurkic said. “So I’m glad we win, and we’re in the playoffs, what we came for.”

He posted a pair of pictures of him and his grandmother on Instagram with the caption, “Every one of the best. [sic] we are all God and we return to him.”

After the Blazers’ win Saturday, Nurkic took to social media again, writing, “We did it Grandma.”

Nurkic has talked openly about the grief he has felt as his grandmother has dealt with the illness while he’s been inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort, first revealing publicly that she was sick after Portland lost to Boston on Aug. 2.

“I’m praying for her,” Nurkic said that day. “It’s family. Obviously the court is the safest place for me. I’ve been through a lot in my life. It’s not going to change my mindset. It will be the same when I’m on the floor.”

That certainly proved to be the case Saturday. Nurkic came out to warm up with his teammates before the game, and he received a thumbs-up and an encouraging word from one of Memphis’ assistants as both teams were shooting prior to tipoff. During introductions, he was given a hug by McCollum before going through the customary handshakes with everyone on the team as he prepared to play.

When he was on the court during a free throw or a stoppage in play, Nurkic’s head often dropped. And he often found a solitary place on the court away from everyone else.

“Obviously, it’s emotional,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him; as it’s very difficult, been hanging over his head for a while. There was never talk of not playing.

“You could tell that it was on his mind. But other than talking about it briefly before the game, that was it.”

Once the game began, though, Nurkic looked like every bit of the player who, after suffering a gruesome leg injury in March 2019 that ended his previous season prematurely, returned to play for the first time since then here in Orlando and hasn’t missed a beat.

But while Nurkic was having his way in the paint, Memphis, which entered the bubble as the eighth seed only to go 2-6 and fall to ninth during the seeding games, didn’t go down without a fight.

The Grizzlies got big games from rookies Ja Morant (35 points and eight assists) and Brandon Clarke (20 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists), as well as big man Jonas Valanciunas (22 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists).

The Grizzlies also used hot shooting from 3-point range (13-for-24) to take a five-point lead after three quarters and an eight-point lead early in the fourth.

Portland, after going down eight, responded by ripping off five straight points, and then pulled within one on multiple occasions. But it wasn’t until 3:10 remained in the fourth quarter and McCollum buried a step-back 3-pointer that Portland tied the game for the first time since midway through the third quarter — only for Nurkic to convert an and-1 over Valanciunas with 2:39 remaining to give the Blazers a 114-111 lead.

From there, it was a combination of McCollum’s shot-making and superb defense from Nurkic — as well as Anthony’s 3-pointer with 20.2 seconds remaining — that pushed the Blazers’ lead to six. After surviving one last push by Memphis, Portland made it back to the postseason after reaching the Western Conference finals last season.

“I’ve been seeing everybody saying what we’re gonna do to the Lakers,” Lillard said. “But the Lakers, they’re the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason. They’ve got the best player in the world on their team.

“But at the same time, we didn’t fight as hard as we fought in the bubble to just say, ‘All right, we’re the eighth seed,’ and go out here and just get beat up on. We feel like we have a chance in a series against anybody in this league. We feel like we’ve got a chance in this series. And that’s how we’re gonna approach it.

“We respect them for who they are, and we have enough belief in ourselves to go into it feeling like we can win the series. I think it’s that simple.”

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