SAN ANTONIO – Michael Porter Jr.’s plaid bucket hat and shorts, paired with a bright red polo, lit up the visiting locker room late Monday night.
But as loud as his outfit was, it paled in comparison to his actions in the closing moments of Monday’s 115-109 thriller over the Spurs. Save for 11 inconsequential seconds, Porter wasn’t on the floor for the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter, when the Nuggets clamped down on defense and squeezed the life out of San Antonio for the second time in three nights.
Over the final 5:30, it was Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown who were responsible for stifling San Antonio’s offense. In crunch time, Denver outscored San Antonio 13-6 to close the game. Murray whipped up a couple of special assists, while Denver’s thieves accounted for three steals and forced five turnovers to snuff out the Spurs.
Porter watched, engaged from the bench, not bemoaning the fact that he wasn’t on the floor but rather celebrating the impenetrable wall his teammates had built.
“Even if I’m not on the floor at the end of the game, we got a lot of good players, so I’m not gonna be selfish,” he said. “Even though I want to be on the floor, it’s whatever coach thinks gives us the best chance to win. I would’ve rather been sitting on the bench and cheering my teammates on and win the game, than me be in the game and we lose – even though I don’t think we would’ve lost.”
Porter’s growth in that regard is stark. He couldn’t help but smile, just a bit, when declaring his opinion that the Nuggets would’ve still prevailed with him on the floor, but the fact that he didn’t dwell was enormous. Even on a night when he had it going in the form of 24 points on 4-of-8 from the 3-point line and his synergy with Jokic peaking, there was no hint of objection to Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s decision.
“That’s a big part of our culture,” Malone said. “Being selfless. Get over yourself, it’s not about you. It’s about the team. … Our players understand, you gotta sacrifice. If you want to be a great team, we all gotta check our egos at the door.”
As wound up as Malone was over the team’s 20 turnovers, he was happy to engage on the decision to opt for defense over offense. Caldwell-Pope and Brown were hellish defensively, as was Gordon, who had four steals on the night. Jokic earned the Defensive Player of the Game, though, for his steals (two), blocks (three) and deflections (seven).
As Porter stood at the scorer’s table midway through the second half, Denver’s defense flipped another Spurs turnover into an easy transition layup. Porter pumped his fist at the momentum play, elevating his team’s achievements over anything else.
“I thought Michael was tremendous when he played, and even when he was not in the game to close, he wasn’t pouting, he wasn’t sulking, he was being a pro, supporting his teammates and cheering on the fact that we got a really good win,” Malone said.
Asked about his defense after the game, Porter knew the right things to say, but it’s more than that. On a team with a handful of defensive bulldogs, he said he doesn’t want to be the “weak link.”
A plus-3 on the night, the lowest of all the starters, Porter’s perspective was shaped by understanding that in Brown, Caldwell-Pope and Gordon, the Nuggets have three versatile wings capable of matching and blowing up any combination Gregg Popovich could conjure. There was no wallowing at the situation, only an understanding that to be on the floor in those moments, his defense can’t be a liability.
“It was a really good overall team win,” Porter said.