PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Jusuf Nurkic knows what his former team is missing. He illustrated that Tuesday night and got serenaded by his new fans in the process.
Nurkic had a career-high 33 points with 16 rebounds against his ex-teammates, CJ McCollum had 39 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Denver Nuggets 122-113 on Tuesday night to take hold of the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
“They know definitely what they’re missing,” Nurkic said. “But they’re happy for me that I find my spot, and I’m happy for me, too.”
Portland leads Denver by a game for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Blazers also clinched the season-series tiebreaker with the Nuggets, giving them an upper hand with eight games to play.
After the game, Nurkic’s former coach could only tip his hat.
“Jusuf Nurkic kicked our ass,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “(He) was very physical.”
Jameer Nelson led Denver with 23 points.
The Blazers got Nurkic involved early against his former team. On Portland’s first possession, Nurkic scored on a post-up play against Nikola Jokic, who took Nurkic’s starting spot in Denver.
After another first-quarter basket, Nurkic called on the crowd to pick up the noise, which was a theme for him throughout the night, even while on the bench.
When Nurkic left the game late in the third quarter, he did so to a standing ovation.
It wouldn’t be his last of the night, as Blazers coach Terry Stotts pulled Nurkic for a curtain call with 19 seconds left.
Nurkic spoke to the crowd after the game, even taking a shot at his former team.
“I wish those guys a happy summer,” Nurkic said.
The Blazers raved about Nurkic’s confidence, but they also knew how much this game meant to him.
“He’s real hard on himself just because he cares so much,” Damian Lillard said. “Last night, I was watching a few games, he actually reached out to me and said ‘I need you tomorrow.’ And I know he really wanted to win this game. I just calmed him down, ‘You’ll be fine, you’ll have a good game.'”
“He’s had this game circled since he got here,” McCollum said. “We got the slogan for Big Nurk, ‘From the bench to the playoffs.'”
MCCOLLUM FEELING IT EARLY
While Nurkic charged the game with emotion, McCollum dominated on offense. Malone said after the game that the Nuggets couldn’t guard him, something McCollum knew earlier than anyone.
“When I got out of bed from my nap at 3:15 p.m.,” McCollum said. “That’s when I felt they couldn’t guard me.”
Lillard said he sensed the difference in attitude from McCollum after a couple of baskets.
“When he starts talking, making shots, getting aggressive and getting the crowd into it, I know he feels something within himself,” Lillard said. “That’s when it’s my job to recognize that.”
Nuggets: Despite the playoff implications, coach Malone stayed away from calling Tuesday’s game a must-win. “Not one time has anyone on this staff said to our players, ‘This is a must-win,'” Malone said prior to the game. “Because if we do that and lose this game for some reason, then our players say the season is over, we failed.”
Blazers: The arrival of Nurkic from Denver has coincided with Portland’s longest stretch of winning basketball, going 12-7 since his arrival. Malone didn’t think much had changed with Nurkic, though. “I haven’t seen anything different,” Malone said. “He started 25 games for us and we looked to post him up at times on the left block. He’s a more than capable passer. He’s a guy that can take the ball to the basket at times. We have our starting center in Nikola Jokic. (Nurkic has) come here and given them a boost, I’m happy for him. He’s a good kid.”
Nuggets: Denver continues its five-game road trip in Charlotte on Friday night.
Blazers: The Blazers host James Harden and Houston on Thursday night.
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