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Welcome to the club, Michael Porter Jr. That’s what superstars do. More importantly, that’s when they do it.
Forced to walk across the site of their lowest moment, they bury everything about the memory but the seed of anger, the fuel with which to rage. Faced with an opposing crowd screaming for blood, they rise to meet the din. They elevate.
Nikola Jokic and Monte Morris pulled the Nuggets over the line and put Portland to bed Thursday night in Game 6 of their playoff series. Denver closed like the playoff-tested, postseason veterans they are.
They were patient. They were methodical. They were cold-blooded. More than that, and the part coach Michael Malone can’t stop loving, they were tough as old leather.
“Nobody,” the Joker told TNT after his 36 points lifted the Nuggets to a 126-115 series-clinching victory, “can take the fight out of us.”
Nobody can doubt that Jokic has another running mate who can handle the brightest of lights and the biggest of stages. In the same building where he’d been humbled just a few days earlier, taking only three shots in a humbling Game 4 defeat, Porter came out firing.
It was cocky, almost.
And it was beautiful.
For a quarter — the first, his favorite — the young Nuggets forward gave the Portland crowd a taste of Damian Lillard’s medicine, draining five consecutive 3-point attempts and six of seven from beyond the arc.
Not tonight. Not again.
Over the game’s first 12 minutes, MPJ had 22 points. Yes, he scored four over the next 36. Yes, there were times when Norman Powell abused the kid in the paint. Yes, there were defensive brain cramps. Yes, Porter spent more time complaining to the officials about the physicality than responding with his own.
But it was another step. Another step forward. Another step in the maturation process. Another step up, when the stakes couldn’t have been higher. He found a way.
So did they. The Blazers were a bad matchup, on paper, a poor man’s version of the Jazz. But Malone, without the services of Jamal Murray, kept on figuring out ways, and matchups, that could replace the Blue Arrow in the aggregate. A little bit of Austin Rivers (seven points). A pinch of Facu Campazzo (10 points, five free-throw makes). A mad dash of Morris (22 points, nine assists, three steals), Denver’s MVP of the first round.
And what sweet redemption. During Game 6 in Portland two springs earlier, Morris had been invisible: Two minutes of action, one missed field goal. Fast forward to 2021, and it was the former Iowa State star who was pulling the Nuggets up off the mat in the third quarter, draining three of his four tries from the floor, including a running desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer as time expired, cutting the hosts’ lead to 101-98 and hushing the Moda Center Maniacs.
It shouldn’t have been that close. Porter aside, the Nuggets’ body language in the first half showed a team whose shoulders seemed to be already pointed toward a Game 7. If the action wasn’t dictated by Portland’s desperation, it was framed by the Nuggets’ lack of concentration.
Denver turned it over five times in the game’s first 5:59. The Nuggets missed two of their first three attempts at the stripe and four of their first 10. A pair of quick fouls on Jokic put the 3 seed on the back foot when that sneaker should’ve been hovering somewhere north of the throat of Blazers coach Terry Stotts.
And what Denver wasn’t happy to give Portland early, the hosts gleefully took. As we learned in Games 1 and 4, when you let the Blazers set the tempo on the dance floor, ankles get broken. When a team drains 11 of its first 19 attempts from beyond the arc at home, it’s a good bet the basketball gods have already left early to try and beat the traffic.
Not this team. Not this time.
Not with MPJ elevating.
“This kid,” Shaquille O’Neal said during the TNT halftime show, “is gonna be a star.”
He’s already there, Shaq. Already there.