LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Less than two hours after announcing to the world that his grandmother had passed away from COVID-19 on Saturday, Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic walked to center court, rubbed his face and loudly clapped his hands together.
Then he went out and carried Portland into the playoffs with a dominant performance inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort. Nurkic finished with 22 points, 21 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks in 40 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.
“All of it, honestly,” CJ McCollum told ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the game, when asked how much of the team’s effort was in support of Nurkic. I can’t even fathom what he’s going through, having some lost some people in my family. It’s something you never get over; it’s something you just try to get through. We’re just trying to support him and understand that this is a very difficult time for him and his family.”
Damian Lillard, who deservedly was named the Most Valuable Player of the NBA’s bubble earlier Saturday, Sunday’s game with 31 points and 10 assists, and McCollum had 29 — including several huge shots in the fourth quarter.
But Nurkic was the story Saturday.
In the early afternoon, 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.”
He has talked openly about the grief he’s 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 to the world 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 tip-off. 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.
Once the game began, though, Nurkic simply returned to being the player who, after suffering a gruesome leg injury in March 2019 that ended last season prematurely, has returned to play for the first time since then here in Orlando and hasn’t missed a beat.
“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. But I just think — you could tell that it was on his mind.”
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.
Playing without star big man Jaren Jackson Jr., who tore his meniscus against the New Orleans Pelicans on Aug. 3, Memphis got big games from rookies Ja Morant (35 points, 8 assists) and Brandon Clarke (20 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists), as well as big man Jonas Valanciunas (22 points, 17 rebounds and 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, however, responded after going down eight by ripping off five straight points, and then pulled within one on multiple occasions. But it wasn’t until there was 3:10 remaining in the fourth quarter when McCollum buried a stepback 3-pointer that Portland tied the game for the first time since midway through the third quarter — only for Nurkic to convert an and-one over Valanciunas with 2:39 remaining to give the Blazers a 114-111 lead.
From there, it was a combination of McCollum shotmaking and superb defense from Nurkic — as well as a Carmelo Anthony 3-pointer with 20.2 remaining after Lillard drove into the lane and kicked out to him that pushed the Blazers’ lead to six with 20.2 seconds remaining — that helped Portland make it back into the postseason after reaching the Western Conference Finals last season.
“The reason why we competed so hard, the reason why we fought so hard to get in the playoffs, is because we feel like we are capable of doing anything,” Lillard said. “We can beat anybody, we’ve just got to get rested and get ready for the next thing.
“Our work is just beginning.”