Nurkic, Portland return to Denver with winning in mind
(Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Portland Trail Blazers have won four in a row, are coming off a successful homestand and are ready to hit the road.
The first one won't be easy for them. The first stop for Portland (26-17) is Denver to face the Western Conference's top team. The Nuggets (28-13) have won 11 of their last 15, but the Trail Blazers have an edge in that Denver played Sunday night in Phoenix.
The Nuggets lost, 102-93, to the Suns but are going back to a place that has been very good to them. Denver has won 11 straight at home, is 17-3 at Pepsi Center this season and has survived injuries to Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Gary Harris to go 18-6 since Nov. 19.
Harris returned for a few games but has missed the last three with a left hamstring injury.
The Trail Blazers are 8-10 on the road this season and will try to stop a four-game losing streak to Denver dating back to last season. The Nuggets stole a 113-112 win in Portland on Nov. 30 when CJ McCollum missed a shot at the buzzer and they would like to return the favor on Sunday night.
Playing in Denver is always extra special for Portland center Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic began his career with the Nuggets after they acquired him and Harris from Chicago in a draft-day trade in 2014. Nurkic was considered the center of the future for Denver, but things changed during the 2016-17 season -- namely, Nikola Jokic emerged as the future.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone tried playing them together to start that season, but it didn't work. Malone and his staff decided Jokic was the man and soon after, Nurkic was traded to Portland in a deal that sent Barton to Denver.
Barton and Nurkic have thrived with their new teams, although Barton has played just two games this year because of a core muscle surgery before making his return against the Suns on Saturday night.
Nurkic has scored 20 or more points in six of the last nine games and is averaging 20.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.70 blocks and 1.30 steals in that span.
Nurkic's recent strong play has come after he simplified his game. It showed in Friday's win over Charlotte when he had 11 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and six blocked shots.
"Before, I was trying to figure out too much," Nurkic told The Athletic. "Now, I just have fun and enjoy what I'm doing. To be in position to just relax and play, it means to me a lot. Before, I want to do a lot of stuff, but it can't happen (at once)."
Barton is also going against his former team. Saturday night was his first game after missing 36 straight and he scored six points off the bench in his return. He didn't mind, he was happy to be playing and even happier the team was 26-12 without him.
"I hate being away from the game," Barton told Altitude TV. "And seeing us have so much success, you just want to be a part of it and in the fight with your brothers."
--Field Level Media
Updated January 13, 2019