If the Denver Nuggets injury-riddled stay at Disney World has taught them one thing, it’s to seek out their own silver linings. If the Nuggets had their full compliment of players available for their first few scrimmage inside the NBA bubble, Denver probably doesn’t get the extended look that they did at rookie Bol Bol. And if Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton had played Monday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Michael Porter Jr. surely doesn’t pull off what he did in the Nuggets’ second seeding game.
Taking advantage of increased playing time, Porter started his second-straight game at shooting guard and exploded for a career-high 37 points on 12 of 16 shooting (4 of 6 3-pointers) and 12 rebounds in the Nuggets’ 121-113 overtime win. It was a vindicating performance for Porter as well after he struggled in Denver’s first seeding game against the Miami Heat. Between Saturday’s loss where he shot just 4 of 11 from the floor and Monday, Porter sent Michael Malone a series of three text messages assuring Denver’s coach that his underwhelming night against the Heat was simply an aberration.
“I just told him that I knew that I could bring a lot more. I didn’t bring the energy. I didn’t bring the effort and the enthusiasm last game and that can never be the case,” Porter said. “I just told him that I know that and especially with Jamal and Gary and Will out, I got to be a guy that steps up and kind of takes on more of a role. I told him I understand that and it won’t happen again.”
Porter logged 43 minutes against the Thunder, smashing his previous career-high of 30 minutes, and Denver outscored Oklahoma City by 25 points when Porter was on the floor. While Porter paced the Nuggets for most of regulation, Nikola Jokic finished the deal, scoring eight of Denver’s 12 points in overtime.
After a shaky first three weeks at Disney World filled with late arrivals, injuries, a missed coronavirus test and a bit of bubble malaise, a victory like Monday’s over Chris Paul’s Thunder had to feel good. The Nuggets can finally exhale.
“We needed this,” Jokic said.
Porter needed it too. In Denver’s first seeding game it looked like his usual confidence had been zapped. Porter missed his first four shots, recorded only one rebound and wasn’t moving effectively off the ball within Denver’s offense. A defensive error also ended up getting him benched. Porter died on a screen while chasing his matchup Jae Crowder around the perimeter early in the third quarter, and after Crowder sunk the triple, Porter exchanged words with Malone on the way back to Denver’s bench.
That incident could have partly been why Porter felt implored to reach out to Malone prior to Monday night in an attempt to keep his spot in the rotation. But Malone had no intentions of going away from the 6-foot-10 forward.
“Michael, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay with you,” Malone said Monday referencing his response to Porter’s texts. “You’re a hell of a young player and you’re going to continue to grow.”
Porter’s career night was reminiscent of his rousing performance in Indiana earlier this season when the 22-year-old scored a then-career-high 25 points on 11 of 12 shooting. But unlike that ubber-efficient night, Porter was afforded the luxury Monday of sharing the floor with Jokic for 34 of the 44 minutes that he played. Jokic and Porter popped in the sparse minutes they played together during the season but they never got the type of steady run from October through March that they did against the Thunder.
Five of Jokic’s 10 assists versus Oklahoma City went to Porter. Three of those five helpers came on off-ball actions where Jokic hit Porter cutting to the basket.
On the Nuggets’ first possession of the game, Jokic hit Porter in stride after he curled around a Monte Morris screen. Once Porter caught the ball just outside the restricted area, Paul and Lugentz Dort were nothing but helpless bystanders.
Jokic’s second interior assists to Porter came after Porter entered a crowded paint. Jokic waited for the bodies around Porter to dissipate before he whipped a pass that hit Porter’s outstretched right hand.
“He’s a big target. He’s strong. So it’s kind of easy,” Jokic said about Porter as a cutter. “When he’s open it’s easy to find him. You can even throw the pass past him and he’ll catch it.”
The third came after Dort blew up a potential Jokic-Porter dribble hand-off, but Porter was able to get the inside track on Dort and divert to the basket. Jokic led him beautifully again.
The Jokic-Porter partnership was initially forged during training camp back in October at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There, Jokic presented Porter with the Golden Rule of Jokic Ball: “When you’re standing you’re wrong.”
It only took two official team practices for Jokic to tell Porter he could be the best cutter on the team, and after watching him this season it’s easy to see why. Porter’s combination of size, strength and athleticism doesn’t come around often. Porter’s measurables give passers like Jokic an enormous moving target around the basket and leave lots of room for error on lobs and passes at the rim. Throw it anywhere near Porter’s catch radius, and he’ll haul it in.
“I love playing with Jok. I think he’s learning to play with me,” Porter said. “Jok is a facilitator first, obviously. He took over like he was supposed to at the end of the game, but he loves passing the ball. When I’m cutting like that I give him a big target and I think he enjoys that.”
The partnership between two of the members of Denver’s core is also still relatively young. While Jokic and Porter spent 34 minutes on the floor together Monday, they logged just 36 minutes together over the final six games that they both appeared in prior to the league’s March 11 hiatus. Throughout the regular season, Porter got most of his minutes alongside Denver bench units, not the Nuggets’ sacred starting five of Jokic, Murray, Harris, Barton and Paul Millsap.
Without Murray, Harris and Barton, Porter can spread his wings and get invaluable reps alongside Jokic that will bolster the Nuggets’ future but also this year’s playoff run. Because after a performance like that, it’s hard to imagine Porter slipping back into the shadows when Denver returns to full health.