On Feb. 3, 2017, in a game last season at Pepsi Center against the Milwaukee Bucks, Jusuf Nurkic was unhappy. The Nuggets were excelling on offense ever since the switch from the so called ‘Jurkic’ lineup (the combination of Nurkic and Nikola Jokic in the starting lineup) to having the big, Bosnian center coming off the bench — and Nurkic wasn’t happy about it.
During halftime of the game — as Jokic was working his way through what would become his first career triple-double — Nurkic put his street clothes on and casually walked out of Pepsi Center. He was angry that he didn’t get off the bench in the first half while watching Jokic excel on the court that game. Personnel from the Nuggets had to go get him and demand he come back. It was the last straw in many ways for Nurkic, and was the conclusion of a two-month denouement where the center became increasingly difficult and unhappy and disruptive.
Ten days later, Nurkic was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers for Mason Plumlee. It was an unhappy time for the Nuggets; particularly since the Blazers proceeded to go on an incredible run with a motivated and angry Nurkic, claiming the final spot in the Western Conference playoff race — a spot that the Nuggets had held in their possession for the better part of two months.
On March 28th in Portland, while the Trail Blazers were rolling, Nurkic dominated the Nuggets in an all-too-easy win. He finished with 33 points and 15 rebounds, compared to Jokic’s 17 points and eight rebounds. More importantly, he played with an edge that the Nuggets felt like they never saw when he played in Denver. While the Nuggets were busy chatting Nurkic up before and after the game, ‘The Bosnian Beast’ was doing everything to stick it to the Nuggets. He wanted to beat this team, badly — and it didn’t seem as if the Nuggets could match his intensity.
That question still remains even in this new season, as the Nuggets played an eerily similar game in Portland Monday. The team couldn’t make a shot, Nurkic dominated again, and the Nuggets — for lack of a better term — looked like the moment was too big for them. It was just another game our of 82. Their intensity was nowhere to be found, and the Nuggets seemed (outside of Paul Millsap and Wilson Chandler) to treat the Blazers like any another team instead of the rival that the Trail Blazers and Nurkic think they are.
Really, the issue the Nuggets face is simple: Nurkic wants to beat the Nuggets far more than the Nuggets want to beat Nurkic. This kind of intensity something the team is badly missing and it revolves around their star — Jokic. For two games in a row, Jokic has been dominated by his former teammate to the point where it’s rendered the skills of the current Western Conference Player of the Week completely ineffective. If Jokic is to become the star the Nuggets have craved, he simply cannot be dominated to this extent in big, divisional match-ups.
The Nuggets seem to have a mental block firmly in place when it comes to the Blazers and Nurkic. Twice the Nuggets have faced the Blazers in statement games in Portland, and twice, they’ve have come up wanting. This can’t continue if they’re to be taken seriously as a playoff contender. If the Nuggets can’t overcome their Nurkic problem, there’s no reason to believe that they can ascend to the level that so many believe they can reach.
The Portland Trail Blazers are not a definitively ‘better’ team than the Denver Nuggets, but they have got the better of them in two straight contests. The Nuggets have a grand opportunity to win the hearts and minds of a Denver fan base public that is looking for winners now that the Broncos have gone in the tank. A statement win last night would have gone a long way.
The missed opportunity proves that the Nuggets still have work to do, and it’s not on the court — it’s in their heads and their hearts.