At 6-foot-10, Michael Porter Jr. almost never sees a defender in his shooting window.
“Usually, I don’t really see contests,” he admitted in his first game after a month-long absence due to what he described as a form of plantar fascia in his left foot.
When it happens, the Nuggets’ 3-point sniper takes notice.
As Jerami Grant flew out on him late in the second quarter of Friday’s win at home against Portland forcing a rare air-ball, it reinforced how impactful defensive length can be. Even though it came at his own expense, Porter heeded the lesson.
Porter finished with 18 points and five rebounds in Denver’s 120-107 win as he scratched the upper limits of his minute restriction at 27. More importantly, he proved an important part of Denver’s stifling defensive effort in their third consecutive win. Now winners in six of their last seven games and 20-11 overall, perhaps the Nuggets have turned a defensive corner with Phoenix coming to town on Christmas.
On the season the Nuggets rank 23rd in defense; in the last seven games, they’re 12th.
After an abysmal first half, the Nuggets stymied Portland’s offense in the third quarter. Porter’s return coincided with Jamal Murray’s return following his one-game absence due to knee maintenance. Together, they squashed all of the Trail Blazers’ momentum and reeled off a 35-16 quarter.
Offensively, Porter carried the load initially when he scored inside and used his huge frame to finish through traffic. The Murray wave came next, as he bobbed and weaved for 12 points. All the while, Denver defended well. Murray, switching onto Grant, held his own in the paint and either forced a miss or ensured Grant got off the ball.
It was a complete game for Murray, who flirted with his first career triple-double, finishing with 25 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds and two steals in a season-high 39 minutes. But it was his defense that impressed coach Michael Malone.
“You’ll get to be an NBA All-Star when you’re impacting the game across the board,” Malone said of his message to Murray. In Malone’s opinion, Murray positively impacted every category on Friday night.
As the Nuggets tightened the screws on the Blazers, Murray said Denver’s bench could hear the five-man unit talking on the opposite end of the floor.
“When we communicate, we do a lot better,” he said.
Friday’s effort represented a far cry from the 28th-ranked defense that dogged the Nuggets for the first two months of the season. It looked a lot more like the defensive engagement they offered in Tuesday’s resounding win over the Grizzlies.
Within the game-changing third quarter, there were second and third efforts, turnovers forced, defensive rebounds secured, and a malleable unit so connected they could even impede Blazers guard Damian Lillard.
“When our defense turned up, the offense is great, but I just get so excited when I see five guys locked in, on a string,” Malone said.
Within that effort was Porter, who dove on the floor for a loose ball directly in front of Denver’s bench. Malone saw the same effort Friday that led him to praise Porter’s defense following Thursday’s practice.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Malone said of Porter. “You can be impactful on both ends.”
Porter knows it, too. After returning to the starting lineup, Porter said he was just happy to resume his place alongside Murray and Nikola Jokic, knowing that Bruce Brown and Christian Braun both filled in more than capably. He didn’t outright say it, but perhaps he saw the defensive tenacity both Brown and Braun utilized in his absence and conscientiously picked up where they left off.
Either way, Porter said he didn’t want to be a weak link.
In the aftermath of the win, Malone said he approached Braun and told him that just because he didn’t play against Portland didn’t mean he didn’t believe in him. It’s just that Friday marked the first time in more than a month that Denver could flex its depth, on both ends. When Porter and Murray are as engaged as they were Friday night, Denver becomes nearly unstoppable.
Back in the starting lineup, Murray said the team was starting to realize its immense potential.
“I do,” he said. “We want to get to the Finals and win a championship.”