Here’s why Jusuf Nurkic’s injury is a big deal for the Golden State Warriors
The Portland Trail Blazers are one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but they’re going to have to overcome a major injury to claim the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Jusuf Nurkic has a “non-displaced right leg fibular fracture,” the Blazers announced on Friday. He is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season and will be reevaluated in two weeks.
Portland acquired the big man from Denver (along with a first-round pick) at the trade deadline after the Nuggets chose Nikola Jokic over Nurkic as their franchise center.
That trade has worked out wonderfully for Portland, as Nurkic provides a perfect complement to the Blazers’ All-Star-caliber backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Nurkic’s solid screens and ability to finish at the rim give Lillard the pick-and-roll partner he really hasn’t had in Portland, while McCollum spaces the floor and prevents defenders from cheating on Nurkic’s forays to the basket.
With Nurkic in the fold, the Blazers moved past the Nuggets into the final playoff spot out West and looked poised to challenge the Golden State Warriors in the first round. No, really.
I’m not saying a healthy Nurkic makes Portland a threat to knock off Golden State, per se, but the Warriors are going to use their opening playoff series to get Kevin Durant back up to speed as he returns from injury. The last thing Stephen Curry & Co. need is to face Lillard, who always takes his matchups with Curry as a personal challenge, and a big man for whom they have no answer in Nurkic.
Draymond Green is an outstanding defender — perhaps the Defensive Player of the Year. There’s no question about that. If I’m Steve Kerr, though, I don’t want Green having to bump and grind with Nurkic for five or six games in the first round. I know every bit of energy is going to matter in the conference finals and beyond.
What are the other options, though? JaVale McGee can’t guard Nurkic. Zaza Pachulia might slow him down for stretches, sure, until Pachulia gets overpowered by the larger man. David West might hold his own, but is Kerr really planning to play West for extended minutes once Durant’s back? (Hint: no.)
The Warriors are the best team in the NBA, but their glaring weakness is the one area the Blazers can exploit. And heaven forbid Portland should manage to steal two of the first four games in this theoretical playoff series, igniting the internal strife we’ve seen all too often in Golden State.
Every early bump in the road could prove costly when it’s time to win the championship. There’s no bigger bump in the West than Nurkic.
Yet all that potential drama becomes far less likely with the Nurkic injury, if only because Portland’s playoff chances take a massive hit.
The Blazers still lead the Nuggets by two games for the eighth seed. However, they’ll have to face the Jazz (twice), Timberwolves (twice), Spurs and Pelicans over their remaining seven games — four teams with some of the best big men in the NBA.
While Denver’s schedule isn’t much easier, the Nuggets will go to war at full strength, and they don’t have to blow the doors off the competition. All they need is to be two games better than the Blazers. It’s all relative at this point in the season.
Now, you can argue by this same logic, Denver could be a threat to Golden State. Think that one through, though. The Nuggets don’t have one guard who can go toe-to-toe with the Splash Bros., let alone two like the Blazers. Even if Jokic has a field day against the Warriors’ interior defense, Denver is an easy five-game first-round series at worst for Golden State.
So maybe Portland can dig deep and manage to squeak into the postseason. If so, they could have Nurkic back, and then it’s game on. For now, though, there’s much more work to do than the Blazers imagined yesterday.