Jusuf Nurkic was finishing with the explosiveness, dexterity and confidence on Friday he's largely been missing since suffering that devastating left leg injury in March 2019. When the Trail Blazers most needed a score at the rim, though, the Bosnian Beast failed to capitalize.
Portland fell to the Memphis Grizzlies 130-128 at Moda Center on Friday night, spoiling by far Nurkic's best performance of the season and losing another hotly-contested game against a quality foe. Making matters more frustrating? Nurkic had a golden opportunity to put his team ahead in the final seconds, but airmailed a layup over Xaver Tillman – the exact type of shot he'd been making all game long.
Nurkic finished with 26 points and 17 rebounds, both easy season-highs. He shot 10-of-15 from the field, dished five assists and was a team-high +9, faring far better than Enes Kanter defensively.
But it was the other end where Nurkic was most impressive, not only routinely finishing with both power and finesse in the pick-and-roll, but also abusing smaller defenders – Jonas Valanciunas didn't play for Memphis – with his back to the basket. Nurkic even popped a wing three in perfect rhythm and faked a dribble hand-off for a slick, lengthy finger roll.
Awesome as Nurkic was against the Grizzlies, he still did little to keep them from attacking the paint over and over and over – and Ja Morant was the biggest reason why. He was the best player on the floor in Friday's game, dominating with the pass and shot en route to 33 points and 13 assists. Morant hit just one shot outside the paint, getting to the rim at will with breakneck transition pushes and dazzling dribble moves in the halfcourt.
Memphis, the league leader in paint points, scored a whopping 74 points from there on Friday. Its 29 fast-break points loomed even larger, though, as Portland seemed completely unprepared to deal with the Grizzlies' relentless pace in the open floor. The Blazers tightened their transition defense up a bit after a horrid start, yet still allowed Dillon Brooks an open-floor score following a Damian Lillard layup with under two minutes left.
Lillard led Portland with 27 points, though shot 8-of-22 from the field. C.J. McCollum stuffed the stat sheet with 22 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, while Kanter and Carmelo Anthony combined for 25 points off the bench. Dillon Brooks dropped 17 of his 25 points for Memphis in a wild, back-and-forth third quarter, and Jaren Jackson Jr. – playing just his second game this season – made hay in the paint, scoring 25 points without making a three.
THe good news for the Blazers? Two of their next three games come against Memphis, and some of the issues that plagued them on Friday should be simple to remedy.
If only Morant and company would make it that easy.