Nur­kic once again cen­ter of at­ten­tion

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kos­mider Sec­ond wave. Nick Kos­mider: 303-954-1516, nkos­ or @nick­kos­mider

port­land, ore.» The grow­ing scrum of re­porters closed tight around Terry Stotts on Tuesday night as the Trail Blaz­ers coach fielded his first ques­tion about the cen­ter play­ing his old team.

At that mo­ment, Jusuf Nur­kic walked by the hud­dled mass of cam­eras and recorders as he made his way to the Moda Cen­ter floor to warm up.

“Hey, Jusuf, all this is be­cause of you, man,” Stotts said. Jusuf paused and smiled. “Stop it,” he replied. The stakes were the story as the Nuggets and Trail Blaz­ers, tied for the fi­nal play­off spot in the Western Con­fer­ence, pre­pared to match up for the fourth and fi­nal time this sea­son, play­off hopes for both teams hang­ing in the bal­ance. Nur­kic meet­ing his for­mer team made for a strong sub­plot.

Nur­kic, un­sat­is­fied with a backup role be­hind Nikola Jo­kic, was traded to Port­land in Fe­bru­ary, along with with a first-round pick, for Ma­son Plum­lee. Af­ter strug­gling dur­ing a brief ad­just­ment pe­riod, the 2014 first-round pick has found his stride in Port­land.

Nur­kic has av­er­aged 14 points and 10.1 re­bounds in 18 games since join­ing the Trail Blaz­ers, a stretch in which Port­land has gone 12-6. Stotts cred­ited Nur­kic’s abil­ity to pick up Port­land’s sys­tem quickly as a big rea­son he has made such a quick ad­just­ment.

Nur­kic, no­tice­ably slim­mer than when he left Den­ver, in­sisted his fo­cus wasn’t on find­ing re­venge against Den­ver on Tuesday. Well, al­most.

“I want to win ev­ery game, not just against them,” Nur­kic said. “I want to beat them, es­pe­cially, but it’s noth­ing emo­tional right now. Right now we’re win­ning, and you try to be pos­i­tive and learn from mis­takes. Right now we’re play­ing great bas­ket­ball.”

Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he is glad to see Nur­kic find­ing suc­cess in Port­land.

“For us, it was a mat­ter of we have our start­ing cen­ter in Nikola Jo­kic,” Malone said. “(Nur­kic) has come in here and given them a boost, and you’re happy for him. He’s a good kid.”

Bench scor­ing has been an is­sue in the Nuggets’ last two vic­to­ries, par­tic­u­larly in Sun­day’s 115-90 loss to New Or­leans.

Malone said one ad­just­ment that needs to be made with the re­serves is play­ing through Plum­lee more and al­low­ing the backup cen­ter to be a play­maker.

“Less pick-and-roll, less (iso­la­tion) and less one-on-one,” Malone said. “Play-call­ing can help with that, and then maybe mix­ing up our ro­ta­tions where we (Jo­kic) with that sec­ond group as well.”

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