There was still time left in the fourth quarter when Jusuf Nurkic laid a bone-crushing screen on Tyler Herro Wednesday night at Moda Center. But with just over a minute remaining and the Miami Heat leading 101-92, the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers were well on their way to another frustrating loss.
There's no debating that Herro escalated matters by giving Nurkic a two-handed shove to the back after regaining his feet. A seven-footer nicknamed the Bosnian Beast doesn't need to lean hard into picks in the waning moments of a game that's already been decided, though, even if Heat center Omer Yurtseven did the comparatively tiny Herro no favors by failing to call out his screen.
Things are getting chippy between Tyler Herro and Jusuf Nurkic 👀pic.twitter.com/Yfe5q7Tz8M
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) January 6, 2022
Nurkic's subsequent open-handed jab to Herro's face, obviously, was the least defensible act of their late-game fracas. Both players were ejected from the remainder of Miami's 115-109 win, but don't be surprised if Nurkic is the only one due further punishment from the league. Chauncey Billups speculated after the game that he could be suspended going forward.
Like countless Blazers fans who sprung to his defense online, though, Nurkic—not available to media—didn't seem to believe he was in the wrong. He even sent a subliminal message to Herro on Twitter via former Portland teammate Evan Turner.
The league handbook stipulates that a player who throws a punch is subject to a fine not exceeding $50,000 and/or a possible suspension, solely at the discretion of commissioner Adam Silver.
Nurkic's shot at Herro isn't quite a punch. But intentionally striking an opposing player above the neck is crossing a rubicon of sorts in mid-game scrums, no matter how brief. It definitely wouldn't be surprising if Nurkic was suspended for Friday's game against Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley and the Cleveland Cavaliers, putting Portland at an even greater size deficit against one of the biggest teams in basketball.
The Blazers' loss pushes them to 14-23, 12th in the Western Conference. Playing without Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, they weren't necessarily expected to beat a Miami squad that was absent Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. But Kyle Lowry was ejected in the second quarter after picking up a bogus technical foul for tossing the ball to an official, robbing the already-decimated Heat of their two-way engine.
Portland fought back from a 14-point halftime deficit to eventually tie the game behind a massive third quarter from Anfernee Simons. An offense forced to subsist on P.J. Tucker floaters and dribble hand-offs between he and Max Strus proved too tough for the Blazers to stop, though, allowing Miami to pull away late.
“It really doesn't matter who plays for them. They have an identity that's a hard-playing team on both ends of the floor, and they did that,” Billups said. “They're gonna keep coming the entire time. And I thought at the end of it, they made more winning plays—and that's not just shots. But they made more winning plays than us.”
Let's just hope Portland is in a position to make winning plays in crunch-time against Cleveland. Possibly down Nurkic, Cody Zeller and Larry Nance Jr., who left Wednesday's game early with a left knee injury, the towering Cavaliers would be an incredibly difficult out for the Blazers.