PORTLAND — The Portland Trail Blazers got “Nurkic Fever” late in the season and it helped carry them into the playoffs.
But without big man Jusuf Nurkic — except for about 15 minutes — in the postseason’s opening round, the young Blazers were no match for Golden State. The defending conference champion Warriors swept Portland in its fourth playoff appearance in as many years.
“We had a tough draw, the best team in the league,” Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. “I felt like we played them really well but they also showed their championship pedigree. When you can’t sustain that mental focus for 48 minutes, five minutes and you’re down 25 points.”
Expectations were higher for the Trail Blazers this season after they surprisingly advanced to the second round of the playoffs last year. There wasn’t a whole lot of turnover in the offseason, with just a few new pieces added to the puzzle.
But the NBA’s youngest roster didn’t appear to have the same cohesiveness or consistency as they had last season. December was especially brutal, with Portland going just 4-11.
The low point came Feb. 28, when the Blazers dipped 11 games below .500 with a 120-113 overtime loss at Detroit.
Then March happened.
Lillard caught fire and Portland finished the month 13-3, best in the NBA. Lillard was named the conference’s Player of the Month averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.44 steals in 16 games. Terry Stotts was named the conference Coach of the Month.
Nurkic happened, too. He was just getting comfortable when the month started after coming to Portland in a Feb. 12 deal with the Denver Nuggets.
Nurkic scored 28 points with 20 rebounds against Philadelphia on March 9 and Stotts noted that fans had taken to the newcomer known as the Bosnian Beast: “Nurkic fever? Why not?” The catchphrase was born.
“I love being here,” said the 7-foot center. “I appreciate what the city is doing for me. I just want to give them back something.”
Nurkic developed chemistry with Lillard and guard CJ McCollum, going on to average 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers. Portland was 14-5 with Nurkic in the starting lineup.
“I’m sure we’ll evaluate this season but this was a roller coaster for us from day one. It’s been an up and down season, frustrating in some ways, but I think, as I told the team, what I’ll remember most about this team is how we competed after the All Star break to make the playoffs,” Stotts said.
Misfortune struck and on March 31 it was announced that Nurkic had a non-displaced right leg fibular fracture. It was unclear when the injury occurred.
Nurkic missed the final seven games of the regular season but returned to take part in pre-game warmups in the final few games — leading to speculation that he could return for the playoffs. Portland clinched the eighth and final spot with two games left before finishing at .500.
Nurkic returned for Game 3 against the Warriors. He had two points and 11 rebounds playing in obvious discomfort for about 15 minutes.
The offseason gives Nurkic adequate time to heal from the injury. Lillard is excited at the prospect of having him for an entire season.
“I think to win in this league you have to have guys who have true confidence. I think he’s a guy who has that,” Lillard said. “He just brings something to our team that we didn’t have, a swagger that he has, he’s really impacted our team so I’m excited about moving forward with him and getting on him this summer, making sure he’s working.”
Lillard finished the season with a career-best average of 27 points per game, along with 4.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Backcourt teammate McCollum also finished the season with a career-best 23 points per game.
The Blazers’ winningest starting lineup included Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic and forward Noah Vonleh and Maurice Harkless.
Portland signed hefty contracts with Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard last year, and the team has the third-highest payroll in the league. With a disappointing finish, moves may be in the offing. The Blazers also have three first-round picks in the draft to look forward to.
Lillard was asked after the Game 4 loss to Golden State whether the Warriors were the benchmark for what the Blazers aspire to be.
“I think about when the Pistons were just beating up on Jordan and kicking his butt every year and he had to get through them if he wanted to get to where he wanted to get to,” Lillard said. “That’s just what it is because they (the Warriors) are going to be there, they’re going to be there every year and we have to look at that and understand that we have to be better, we have to go get better and come back better as a group if we want to move past them.”