CHICAGO — Coming off arguably his worst game of the season on Friday night in Boston, Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. looked inward.
After registering a season-low seven points and snatching only four rebounds in Denver’s humbling loss to last season’s Eastern Conference Champions, Porter reached out to coach Michael Malone.
He apologized for not being on top of his game and not being engaged against a team where there was no margin for error. He vowed he’d be better next game.
“That, in and of itself, is maturity,” Malone said. “That, in and of itself, is ownership.”
The next game came Sunday, when Porter reset and exploded for a season-high 31 points on 6-of-9 3-point shooting in just 24 minutes. Porter was shooting into such a big basket that Malone flipped his rotation on the fly, opting to stagger Jamal Murray with the second unit instead of taking Porter out of the game. In Malone’s words, he wasn’t going to be the one to snuff Porter’s fire out.
Not only was his stroke pure, but his defensive engagement was, in Malone’s estimation, as good as he’s ever seen it.
“As simple as it sounds, a lot of guys are not willing to look into that mirror and be honest with themselves,” Malone said.
It was another significant step in Porter’s maturation and yet another reason to believe that the Nuggets’ championship aspirations have legitimacy.
Asked specifically about looking in the mirror and holding himself accountable, Porter shared arguably his most astute personal reflection in years.
“You gotta grow,” he told The Denver Post. “You can’t always blame other people. Sometimes, you’re the common denominator, so I’m always trying to see what I can do to grow.”
This, less than a week after he watched from the bench as the Nuggets sealed their victory in San Antonio and vowed: “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.
This season, Porter’s first as a max contract player, he’s been more self-aware and far more concerned about focusing defensively. He’s spoken numerous times about not being a weak link on that side of the ball. Against Chicago, he was a fixture — and an impact player — on both ends of the court. It was as if his effort on one end yielded chances on the other. There was hustle, anticipation, awareness, and numerous examples of playing defense within Denver’s team concept. He got out on 3-point shooters, rotated on Chicago’s rolling big men, and clogged up passing lanes with his giant wingspan. The only thing that was remarkable was the engagement. There was nothing he did that couldn’t be repeated on a nightly basis.
Frankly, even though he only had one rebound, it may have been Porter’s most complete game yet as a pro. For most of the night, he was in the correct position — on defense, on rebounding opportunities, and in transition.
“He had some defensive possessions where he wasn’t even involved on the ball, but his weakside awareness, his low-man awareness, his multiple effort within that, I thought, was tremendous,” Malone said. “I’ve said this a lot this season. I can tell that Michael is truly making a concerted effort on the defensive end. He’s trying. He’s aware of it, and this is the best effort, most consistent effort, I’ve ever seen him give.”
Malone didn’t say those words lightly. For someone who’s been targeted defensively in the postseason, and someone whose commitment to defense has been inconsistent, Porter is doing everything he can to eschew that narrative. It’s a step that could have profound implications on the Nuggets’ season.
As sweet a stroke as Porter had in Chicago, its impact is only felt as long as he can stay on the court. His effort level on defense all season is a reflection of that understanding. And his buy-in, something that will always remain within his control, has been off the charts.