Blazers’ Nurkic stars in return despite heavy heart

In what was already an emotional game with it being his first official game back since breaking his leg in March 2019, Jusuf Nurkic revealed after the Portland Trail Blazers140-135 overtime victory Friday over the Memphis Grizzlies that his grandmother is in a coma with COVID-19.

“The last couple of days have been the toughest days of my life. My grandma got COVID and she’s in a coma,” Nurkic said. “I think people don’t realize the s— is real out there. We’ve been fortunate to be here in a safe environment, we’re tested every day, but please take care of yourself, wear a damn mask if you need to wear it.”

Nurkic played 33 minutes in his return, providing the Blazers much-needed size and rim protection (six blocks), while also diversifying Portland’s offense (18 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists) before fouling out late in the fourth quarter.

Nurkic said he found out the Friday of the Blazers’ first scrimmage during the NBA restart about his 67-year-old grandmother, Hana.

“His mood changed immediately,” CJ McCollum said. After finding out, Nurkic said he didn’t sleep at all that night.

McCollum said he went to Nurkic’s room to check on him because it was so obvious something was going on.

“His heart is somewhere else, but his body is here so we’ll just try to uplift him,” McCollum said. “Tough situation for him to be so far away from his family and be out here competing, so give him a lot of credit for coming out here battling with a heavy heart.”

Nurkic, 25, said he was FaceTiming his grandmother and was told about her condition, but she said she didn’t want to go to the hospital.

“She didn’t want to go to the hospital in the first place and finally I said, ‘If you don’t go, I come,'” Nurkic said. “I think that kind of made up her mind to go to the hospital. Hopefully it’s not too late.”

Nurkic’s return for the Blazers is a game-changer as they try to make a push for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. And the fact Friday’s game was against the Grizzlies, the team they’re chasing, only made it that much more important. But for Nurkic, it was bigger than just that as he made his way all the way back from his devastating injury in which he suffered compound fractures to the tibia and fibula of his lower left leg.

“I’m just glad we won the damn game, man,” Nurkic said. “I’ve been preparing for this moment for the last 16 months.”

But even with that, and the distraction of his grandmother’s condition, Nurkic tried to keep the focus on the floor.

“It’s family, man. Obviously the court is the safest place for me. I’ve been through a lot in my life and it’s not going to change my mindset, it’ll be the same on the floor,” he said. “We’ve got to deal with all that different stuff in our life and still be there, the team is counting on me.”

Nurkic started his postgame availability wanting to talk about the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and encourage everyone to take precautions to stem the spread of the virus.

“I’m not trying to get attention with all this, or this is just for me, I’m just sure that people can save lives,” he said. “This little thing, if you wear a mask and visit your grandfather or grandma, if you’ve been around someone, don’t go in there. Be smart, man. Don’t take this for granted.

“People don’t understand how serious this s— is,” he said. “We would not be here in the bubble if this thing is not real.”

Nurkic was a key part of a momentum shift in the fourth quarter, finishing a soaring dunk and letting out a visceral roar on his way back down the floor.

“He’s one of my closest friends, so of course I was there for him and we had that conversation and the fact he’s still been able to show up and get his work done, be present at practice and come out and have the kind of game he had that just shows how much it means to him,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “With everything he has going with his family at home and then him being here in the bubble and not have played in 16 months but he still came out here and had this type of performance despite everything that’s weighing him down, I think that makes it more impressive.”

In a highly competitive, intense game, Carmelo Anthony drilled crucial back-to-back 3s in the final minutes of regulation as McCollum took over in the extra frame to pull the Blazers a game closer to Memphis. There was a flurry of technicals in the second half, with Brandon Clarke, McCollum and Zach Collins all getting hit for taunting.

“I think they’ve got to do a better job of balancing that,” McCollum said of the officiating in an environment with no fans. “There are no fans, but we’re all competitive people. I got a technical and I didn’t say anything. But we’ve got to be smarter, we’ve got to react better I guess and try to contain our emotions.”

Said Lillard: “I think because there was no fans and there’s not a lot of noise, that’s gonna distract the referees from what’s right in front of them. The whistle was a little bit more hot. They didn’t give us much leash when guys were celebrating or maybe say a word or two to somebody, it was like, quick. You saw techs came left and right. But maybe that’s they’re coming out to try to control the action or control the back and forth, but hopefully it eases up.”

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