PORTLAND, Ore. — In this line of work, leveling criticism at multimillionaire athletes is not only common, but necessary. Whether you’re right or wrong, justified or unjustified, respectful or vitriolic, part of being a sportswriter in the year 2018 is putting your opinion out there.
Speaking for myself, I offer my opinions based on statistical data and what I see on the basketball court. I’ve inherited my late father’s gift for sizing up people in a matter of seconds, a talent that’s served me well in life — and in this line of work. Doesn’t mean I’m right all the time — far from it, in fact — but I do my level best to present my thoughts as fairly as possible. With some acidic barbs, if I’m feeling cranky.
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Jusuf Nurkic has been a favorite target of mine for the past year and change. He is slow, ground-bound, prone to flopping, has a huge nose that’s apparently very smackable (hardly a week goes by without Nurk crumpled on the court, clutching that Pinocchio beak after someone inadvertently hits it), and has been slow to modernize his game. My biggest bugaboo is his tendency for finesse when he’s the approximate size of a small planet; a man as big as Nurkic shouldn’t be tossing up soft bunnies toward the hoop.
Nurkic also is a big factor in the Portland Trail Blazers being a solid defensive team since they acquired him from the Denver Nuggets, playing his role well and making sure to finish the play with a strong rebound. He uses his 7-foot, 280-pound frame to eat up space on box-outs, freeing the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu and Jake Layman to run at the rim and stuff down putback dunks. He has shown some flashes as a passer though he’s been much more of a finisher so far this season.
While Damian Lillard gets (and deserves) huge amounts of credit for his play, and the Blazers’ bench has gotten millions of words of digital ink for their role in the Blazers’ 7-3 start, there is something that’s getting lost in the shuffle: The Bosnian Beast is beasting and feasting this season.
Nurk has had some explosive games in 2018-19. Twenty two points and 18 rebounds against the Washington Wizards. Eighteen and 10 with three blocks at the Orlando Magic. Twenty two and 10 with eight free throws versus the Houston Rockets. Twenty and nine while shooting 7-of-9 from the field against the Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans. A double-double on Saturday versus the Los Angeles Lakers. Nineteen and 12 on 8-of-11 shooting against the Jimmy Butler-less Minnesota Timberwolves.
A wrist issue and a newfound penchant for shooting 3s hasn’t hurt Nurk’s percentages from the field and the line; he’s shooting 51 percent from the floor, and his 77 percent mark from the charity stripe would blow away his career-high of 63 percent were he to maintain it.
Nurkic will still have games where he disappears, and there will be games where Zach Collins will be a better late-game option. Collins’ play is another positive storyline for the Blazers, one that’s gotten far more attention than the Bosnian’s play. People will still poke holes in his game and poke fun at his habits and tendencies.
Nurk still has been a big part of the Blazers’ success this season. If he continues eating space and rebounds, and continues to be a reliable finisher around the rim (despite his love for bunnies), he will again be mentioned as a franchise cornerstone like Lillard and CJ McCollum. Maybe he might even get a few mentions as a dark-horse All-Star candidate; he did say his goal is to be an All-Star this season.
Despite his averages of 15-10 being a little pedestrian compared to Davis and Nikola Jokic, if Nurkic keeps up his play, he’ll put himself in the conversation. And who knows: If Davis, Jokic, or another Western big man suffers an unfortunate injury, Adam Silver might turn his gaze toward Rip City for a replacement.
Here's a look at predictions for this week's slate of games:
(All games are available on AM 620 Rip City Radio)
Tuesday: vs. the Milwaukee Bucks, 7 p.m., NBCSNW
The Skinny: The Bucks are sitting at 8-1 and the way they’ve played this year is not only dominant, but I also sense an undercurrent of freedom, of joy.
Laboring under the mediocre Jason Kidd and his interim replacement, Joe Prunty (a former Blazers assistant, shoulda stayed in Rip City, Joe), the Bucks looked like they were constantly shackled. Despite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s prodigious talents, and an army of long-armed monsters at every position, Kidd’s unimaginative offense and hyper-aggressive defense were constantly exploited. The games the Bucks did win last year were mostly because of a phenomenon from the early Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls: The Archangel Offense.
Young Jordan, much like Antetokounmpo is today, was a physical marvel the NBA hadn’t ever seen (Julius Erving having spent his younger days toiling in the ABA). The Bulls then were utter crap; before they drafted Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, Chicago struggled to win 30 games a year. What success they did have came when Doug Collins let Jordan have the ball all the time, and basically told him, “Save us, Michael.” Most of the time, Jordan was unsuccessful, even after the kinds of performances — like a 63-point outburst vs. the 1986 Celtics — that led his fellow players to believe he was a freak, an alien, a magician. Larry Bird, perhaps the most taciturn star player in NBA history, called Jordan "God."
Antetokounmpo is more successful than 1984-88 Young Jordan was in terms of wins, but the Archangel Offense took its toll. By the time the playoffs came around in 2017-18, the Bucks were a two-trick pony that injury ravaged Boston took advantage of. Milwaukee lost in the first round in seven games and the search for the Phil Jackson to Giannis’ Jordan began.
I don’t know if Mike Budenholzer can be that coach but he’s off to a very good start. He has the Bucks playing a modern game, shooting 3-pointers (ninth in the NBA in attempts), running the floor (fourth in pace) and leveraging his players’ ridiculous length and speed on defense (second in defensive rating). And the Bucks are having fun decimating teams.
Matchup to Watch: Khris Middleton vs. CJ McCollum. It would be cliché to put Antetokounmpo here, but I want to highlight Middleton’s impact on the Bucks’ hot start as well. A guy who’s scoring 20 points a game with 51 percent 3-point shooting (!!) on 7.6 attempts per game (!!!!!) is definitely worth watching.
Middleton’s incredible accuracy will drop but it’s imperative that he maintains a percentage north of 40. Malcolm Brogdon is shooting 12-of-27 from 3, but most of the Bucks’ other regulars aren’t very reliable, despite the nonstop chucking from beyond the arc. Brook Lopez is league-average from outside, Eric Bledsoe (35 percent) isn’t known as a shooter, Tony Snell is starting out well (40 percent) but has been plagued by confidence issues in the past, and the only thing Antetokounmpo can’t do is shoot 3s (1 of 17).
Giannis may be the engine of the Bucks but Middleton is the oil that keeps the parts lubricated and the machine running. Eyes have to be on him at all times, for he’s a canny player who's just as happy to score off a backdoor cut as he is to rain fire and brimstone from downtown.
Prediction: Portland has had many struggles against the Antetokounmpo-era Bucks. I expect that to continue this game.
Thursday: vs. the Los Angeles Clippers, 7 p.m., NBCSNW
The Skinny: There are several words that come to mind when thinking of the post-Lob City Clippers. “Scrappy” describes Avery Bradley and Montrezl Harrell, while “calcified” is how I’d refer to Marcin Gortat and his slow movements, and his 3.6 points per game — his lowest per-game total since 2010, when he was backing up prime Dwight Howard in Orlando.
“Unlucky” is the best word for Danilo Gallinari, a very talented wing player who can’t ever stay on the court. This is a man who last year literally tore a muscle in his buttocks. You know you’re snakebit when you tear that. Lou Williams is “sweet,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander oozes with “potential,” and leading scorer Tobias Harris and Boban Marjanovic are both “fun.” Harris and Boban have a YouTube show called Bobi and Tobi and are two guys who are very hard to dislike. Bobi in particular is the nicest 7-foot-3 person on the planet, and a good thing too; he looks like he could flip an SUV with his pinky.
Milos Teodosic is “smooth,” Tyrone Williams and Jerome Robinson make me think “lottery tickets,” and Patrick Beverly is a “[REDACTED]”, an “[EDITED OUT]”, and he’s totally a "[NO WAY YOU CAN WRITE THIS WORD AGAIN, BUD]".
The Clippers aren’t as talented as other teams in the West and that could come back to bite them eventually. Their top players are brittle and the front office has eyes on the summer of 2019 instead of this season. They are still fun and tough and much more wholesome to watch than the icy squad that preceded them.
Matchup to Watch: Lou Williams vs. Evan Turner. Williams is the most explosive bench scorer in the NBA today, having snatched the torch from Jamal Crawford. He’s talented enough to start for this team, but Doc Rivers seems to think that Lou’s microwave qualities are best reserved against the opponent’s reserves. Williams is third on the Clippers with 19 points per game and is once again the front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year.
Turner has been a capable catalyst for the Blazers’ second unit and it’ll be up to him to make sure that if Portland builds a lead on the Clippers’ starters, Williams doesn’t blow it away with a barrage of buckets. The Blazers can ill-afford a lackluster performance from their bench like the one they got against the OTHER Los Angeles team.
Prediction: Lillard is bothered by Beverly all night, but Apex Lillard has transcended any defensive strategy that could be employed against him. Blazers win.
Sunday: vs. the Boston Celtics, 6 p.m., NBCSNW
The Skinny: The Celtics have been very slow starters on offense this season, though it’s not due to lack of talent. If anything, they might have too much. Their offense has been lackluster partly because most of the team is mired in a shooting slump or rounding back into shape after major injury — and mostly because all their talent is still learning how to fully actualize on the court.
It’s a very enviable, yet still tough, position for coach Brad Stevens. Stevens has made a name for himself doing more with less; the challenge for him this year is to do more with … more. His brilliance as a coach is well-known, but this season he’s going to have to be less Mike D’Antoni and more Phil Jackson. He has to manage these personalities and egos, especially of Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier.
Once they figure things out, it’s possible the C’s could be the heirs to the Warriors, or their challengers if Kevin Durant flees the Bay Area. Making the Finals this season is the goal. Next year, they should aim to win the title.
Matchup to Watch: Kyrie Irving vs. Damian Lillard. These two are so similar, yet so different. If Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul are the top three in the current point guard pantheon, Lillard and Irving are engaged in a years-long knife fight for fourth place.
In terms of this year, Lillard is handily winning so far. In terms of overall legacy, I’d give a slight edge to Irving. Lillard has made more All-NBA teams (including the first team last year) and has had better stats, but Irving has been to more All-Star games. Both are very clutch performers in the playoffs, but Irving’s moment came in Game 7 of the NBA Finals; it was literally the kind of stuff we all practiced in our driveways and school gyms growing up, only Irving is the lucky punk who got to live that fantasy in real life.
This is an article I may have to do in the future: Dame vs. Kyrie. I might even steal a page from Bill Simmons’ playbook, and do a Dr. Jack Breakdown.
(As a Portlander, I think I can steal a gimmick named after Dr. Jack Ramsay. He means more to us than he does to some nasally-voiced Boston dude, anyway.)
Prediction: The Blazers make it close but Boston’s stingy defense carries them to a grind-out victory.
SEASON PREDICTIONS TO-DATE
- Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 4-1
- Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 7-3
- Jared’s Picks Last Week: 1-4 (ouch)
- Jared’s Picks Overall: 4-5