March 28, 2017 — The last time the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers squared off was, you could say, memorable for both parties.
Jusuf Nurkic, who just six weeks earlier was traded to Portland after the once-disgruntled seven-footer saw his minutes drop and role decrease in Denver with the emergence of Nikola Jokic, pieced together the best game of his career — a 33-point, 15-rebound, 2-block dominating performance where he suffocated Jokic and Denver as the Trail Blazers eeked out a 122-113 win.
With the win, Portland took a one-game lead in the race for the Western Conference’s eighth seed and final playoff spot and never looked back. Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook would formally eliminate Denver nine days later but the Nuggets’ mid-March loss in Rip City was beginning of the end of their rollercoaster 2016-17 campaign.
“I wish those guys a happy summer,” Nurkic said as he walked off the Moda Center floor following the win — a metaphorical mic drop and gut-punch to Denver who never regrouped from the loss.
Nurkic averaged 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds in 20 games with Portland last season. He transformed the Trail Blazers into a juggernaut defensive unit when he played and also complimented Portland’s dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum perfectly on offense.
The Bosnian broke his leg just two days after Denver’s loss to Portland and missed the Trail Blazers seven remaining regular-season games. Portland went 4-3 without Nurkic and he was held out of games one and two of their first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Nurkic attempted to channel his inner Willis Reed and returned in game three but logged 17 ineffective minutes and the Warriors wrapped up the series two days later with Nurkic again on the bench but by that time, most of Denver’s roster was well into their summer vacations.
The damage was done and a Northwest Division rivalry was born.
Publicly, most Nuggets are quick to dismiss any talk that Monday’s game carries any extra weight. Jokic, who will go toe-to-toe with Nurkic called the matchup “just a game we want to win.” Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone and starting point guard Jamal Murray also downplayed the significance of Monday’s game when they had a chance to speak on it after Saturday night’s 125-107 win over the Orlando Magic — Denver’s fifth win in their last six games and seventh in their last nine.
Kenneth Faried, who’s spent the entirety of his seven-year career in Denver says Portland has always been the Nuggets’ rival.
“Since my first year playing with the Nuggets, everybody would say ‘Portland’s the team. You gotta beat Portland no matter who you beat in this division, you gotta beat Portland,’ so it’s going to be interesting to see what happens Monday night.”
Will Barton, who might have the most skin in the game when it comes to the matchup of anyone up and down Denver’s roster, also passed when given the opportunity to comment on the gravity of Monday’s night’s regular-season tilt, if it gained any extra meaning after Nurkic’s comments last year and subtle jabs he’s thrown Denver’s way via social media since.
Barton’s piecing together another quality season in Denver through 12 games and his averages of 15.2 points on 46.1 percent shooting from the field and 41.3 percent from three are all career-highs. The 26-year-old spent his first two-and-a-half professional seasons in Portland but never averaged more than 13 minutes per game with the Trail Blazers and was dealt to the Nuggets in 2015 as a part of a package for Arron Afflalo.
“That phase (of my career) is over with,” Barton told reporters from the Nuggets’ locker room Saturday night when asked if there was anything personal about this matchup for him. “I’ve been gone there two years now, going on three. I don’t look at it that way anymore. I just look at it as going there and trying to get a win for our team. Keep us rolling and that’s that on that.”
“Some people could say that with Nurk going there and Mason coming here, both teams fighting for that eight spot last year,” Barton added when pressed on the topic of a rivalry developing between the two teams. “But I think to be a rivalry you have to meet in the playoffs so I wouldn’t call it that.”
However, privately, the juice of two teams with at least some disdain for one another is there.
One player told BSN Denver on Saturday that the Nuggets definitely view the Trail Blazers as their rival. Last season’s loss in Portland at the hands of Nurkic kindled that flame and his postgame proclamations that night and comments since didn’t go unnoticed by Denver’s players either.
There’s a feeling around the team and in Denver’s locker room that whether players want to admit it publicly or not, they’re taking this matchup with Portland a little differently than their previous 12 games this season. That’s not to say that the Nuggets have taken any of their opponents lightly so far this year but expect Denver to play with a certain edge Monday night.
“Kind of some revenge up there,” Kenneth Faried said.
Another element in play in Portland is that while the Nuggets are playing their best basketball of the young season and arrive in the greater Northwest winners of three-straight, the Trail Blazers have dropped two in a row. In both losses — a one-point defeat against Memphis on Tuesday and a three-point loss at home versus Brooklyn on Friday — Nurkic watched most of the fourth quarter from Portland’s bench as Trail Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts opted to close with reserve big man Ed Davis.
Against Memphis, Nurkic shot just 2-9 from the field and dealt with foul trouble while in their loss to Brooklyn, Stotts stuck with Davis who helped Portland go from seven points down at the start of the fourth quarter to up five.
It’s hard to imagine Stotts going with Davis instead of Nurkic against Denver especially if Monday night’s matchup is close in the fourth quarter.
Emotions will run high in Portland with this early season matchup coming at an important time for both teams. Denver wants to prove that wins over quality opponents like the Raptors and Thunder weren’t a fluke and that the Nuggets’ young core with Paul Millsap can win games on the road in tough environments. Portland, who sits at 6-6, needs a win after two tough losses
The Nurkic factor and a developing rivalry between both sides will likely lead to a high-stakes showdown that sets the stage for the three other times Portland and Denver face off against one another this season. And with considerable playoff aspirations on both sides of Monday night’s tilt, each matchup this year will become more and more meaningful as the NBA’s schedule inevitably winds towards April’s postseason.