DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic’s sidekick in last year’s playoffs was Jamal Murray. This year, it’ll be Michael Porter Jr.
The small forward averaged 19 points and 7.3 rebounds in a breakout season while helping the Denver Nuggets overcome a bundle of injuries, most notably Murray’s season-ending ACL tear last month.
“Michael’s going to be ultra important for us on both ends of the floor. He’s got to be that second scoring option for us,” said coach Michael Malone, whose team opens its best-of-seven series against Portland on Saturday night.
“He was really important for our postseason run last year and I have no doubt that he’s up for the challenge this year.”
Porter, who missed his rookie season in 2018-19 because of a back injury that limited him to three games at Missouri, earned Malone’s trust by ratcheting up his game when play resumed in the bubble at Walt Disney World last season.
Porter was working his way through defensive deficiencies and averaging 7.5 points and 4.1 rebounds off the bench before play was suspended because of the coronavirus.
“We went down to Orlando, we didn’t have anybody, we had all bigs, and Michael got a tremendous chance to play in the eight seeding games,” said Malone.
Porter was named to the All-Bubble Second Team after averaging 22 points and 8.6 assists in Denver’s eight seeding games.
“I think that allowed Michael to get confidence in himself, but also his teammates, the coaching staff to say, ‘OK, you know what? We can throw more at this kid and he’s more than ready to take it and run with it,’” Malone said.
“And that translated into the postseason,” where Porter averaged 11.4 points and 6.7 boards in a prelude to his breakout season.
Malone said he wondered whether the Nuggets could win half of their remaining 18 games after Murray got hurt on April 12, “and Michael continued to step up his game even more, allowing us to go 13-5 down the stretch.”
Porter did this despite drawing extra attention from opponents.
With Murray and Jokic on the court, Porter often got the ball for wide-open 3s or uncontested drives. But “when you’re the focal point of a team’s scouting report,” Porter said, “you’ve got to really use your head to get shots.”
And rebounds — playing more on the wing than “just chillin’ in the corner” makes it harder to crash the boards.
Porter is still stuffing the stat sheet, however, and continuing to round out his game, which now includes some bona fide defensive pluck.
It’s his offense that has the Blazers’ attention, and their plan is to crowd him.
“I think the best thing for us is to stay as close as possible to him,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s a very good jump shooter. He moves well without the ball, they really look for him.”
Porter welcomes the challenge just as he embraces his heavier role in the postseason.
“I have more responsibility on my shoulders and I’m welcoming it,” Porter said. “I’m embracing it. It’s where I wanted to be, progressing, taking a jump.”