Battle of the Balkans underwhelms as Jokic, Nurkic fail to impress

Nov 13, 2017; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27) reacts after being poked in the eye against the Denver Nuggets in the first half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The stage was set for a rematch of last year’s intense game between the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers. In that matchup, Jusuf Nurkic had his revenge against his former team and — more importantly — the better of Nikola Jokic. In Monday’s highly anticipated game, the matchup disappointed as Portland came away victorious with a 99-82 win over the Nuggets.

In the Trail Blazers 122-113 win over the Nuggets on March 28th of last season — the game that virtually eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention — Nurkic had 33 points and 15 rebounds in his first game against his former team as he overshadowed Jokic, who finished with 17 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.

Nurkic played for the Nuggets for three seasons before he was traded to Portland with a 2017 first-round pick — a pick that was originally owned by the Memphis Grizzlies — in February for Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second-round pick.

The decision to move on from Nurkic was an interesting one. He displayed flashes of brilliance alongside Jokic during the time that Nuggets’ head coach Michael Malone experimented with the ‘Twin Tower line-up’, but that pairing seemed to suppress what makes Jokic great and ended up limiting the success of the team. That is when Jokic volunteered to come off of the bench which, ultimately, was the beginning of the end for Nurkic in Denver. Eventually, Malone decided to bring Nurkic off the bench and slide Jokic into the starting lineup, which happened to be the move that upset Nurkic and forced Denver to move on from him.

In Monday’s game — while the stakes were not as high as their most recent matchup in late March of last season — there was an expectancy for a duplicate performance from both sides.

Jokic was on a hot streak heading into the game versus the Trail Blazers. He was just recently presented with the NBA’s Western Conference Player of the Week award as he averaged 22.7 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.3 steals and one block per game while leading the Nuggets to a 3-0 record, including a career-high, 41-point outing at the Pepsi Center.

Jokic finished with just six points, seven rebounds and three assists in the loss to the Trail Blazers and didn’t seem to bring the same type of energy that we have become accustomed to seeing from him as of late.

Nurkic, on the other hand, has been having an inconsistent year. He is averaging 15.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, but there have been moments where he and Portland’s head coach, Terry Stotts, have seemed to butt heads. Last week — in the middle of a solid game where he was 10-20 from the field for 21 points — Nurkic found himself benched for nearly the entire fourth quarter.

While Stotts downplayed the decision and referenced small-ball lineups as a reason for the benching it seemed there were still questions surrounding the entirety of the situation. At one point in the game, assistant coach David Vanterpool appeared to have popped up from the bench and screamed at Nurkic for what seemed to be a lack of defensive hustle. It’s been an up-and-down affair for Nurkic to start the 2017-18 NBA season.

In Denver’s 99-82 loss, Nurkic didn’t necessarily have a bad game. While he did seem to have some extra motivation, considering that he was facing his former team, Nurkic’s performance just wasn’t the same. He finished with 17 points and five rebounds, but he did; however, commit seven turnovers.

The Nuggets will play Portland three additional times throughout the 2017-18 NBA season and, if the divisional matchups between Denver and Portland are to become a rivalry, it is going to take incredible performances from both Nurkic and Jokic. The atmosphere needs to be like the last time they played back on March 28th — when the playoffs were the prize.