Nurkic, Collins returns give Blazers’ hopes boost

NBA

The Portland Trail Blazers are trying to make a push for the West’s 8-seed and got a big boost at their first practice on Saturday with the returns of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins.

“They both looked like the way we remembered them,” coach Terry Stotts said. “I told Nurk that he’s the Nurk I remember playing, at both ends of the floor.”

Nurkic has been out since March of 2019 after suffering a gruesome compound fracture in both the tibia and fibula of his left leg. Collins has been out since November after undergoing surgery on a dislocated shoulder.

“They looked great,” Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. “Both guys played really physical, played well in the paint. They didn’t seem concerned with anything, they looked really comfortable.”

Guard CJ McCollum also said Nurkic looked comfortable jumping and landing in traffic, which is notable considering the way his injury happened.

“They look good, they’re moving well, very comfortable,” he said. “Nurk’s got very soft feet around the basket, he can move, he can shoot, makes the right read, makes the right passes. Zach, confident, knocking down shots, protects the rim. He’s an elite defender, especially around the basket. He blocks shots, he’s tenacious.”

Without Nurkic and Collins, the Blazers struggled significantly in multiple interior areas, specifically paint defense and rebounding. The Blazers rank 27th in defensive rebound percentage after being in the top 10 the past two seasons. Other than persistent injury issues, much of the Blazers’ problems this season have come on the defensive end (27th in defensive rating), and adding back Nurkic and Collins should help significantly as the NBA restarts its season in Orlando, Florida. It could also include a defensive scheme adjustment.

“I’m excited about the style we’re going to be able to play with both of those guys on both ends of the floor, being up higher in pick-and-rolls, putting more pressure on the ball,” Lillard said. “Our rebounding is going to be much better than it has been all season long. Us being able to play through the bigs because they can both pass the ball really well. It was just fun to see them back on the floor doing things that we haven’t really had the luxury of having this season.”

With Nurkic and Collins back, and in the absence of Trevor Ariza — who is not participating in the restart — the Blazers will have to make starting lineup changes, which likely will feature Carmelo Anthony back at his old familiar spot of small forward.

“I can see Melo playing the 3 to start games,” Lillard said. “I could see us having a pretty big lineup out there. Other than me and CJ, obviously.”

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