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Michael Porter Jr. rose up for a contested 3-pointer against the Bucks — early in the shot-clock, no ball movement, with the Nuggets trailing in the fourth quarter — when Nikola Jokic could no longer hide his frustration.
Porter’s jumper predictably clanked off the rim. Jokic hardly chased the rebound, but later ran over to Porter for some direct mentorship. Later that night, following a third straight Denver loss, Jokic said blankly: “I told (Porter) after the game: ‘That’s just a bad shot.’”
Brutal honesty, it seems, is Jokic’s preferred leadership style.
Porter embraces the tough love.
“Me and Nikola’s relationship, a lot of it is him getting on me knowing I can be better,” Porter told reporters this week. “I don’t take any of that personally. I’m my biggest critic. I know I can be better, especially when I have bad games. We’ve got a good relationship on the court. He just expects a lot from me.”
The Nuggets’ decision to select Porter with the 14th overall pick of the 2018 NBA draft continues to produce mixed returns. The weeks-long injury absence of shooting guard Gary Harris (thigh) has given Porter a starting audition in four games, entering Sunday’s home tilt vs. the Lakers, with the Nuggets 2-2 over that span.
In losses to Sacramento and Milwaukee, Porter shot 30% from the floor with a combined minus-11.5 rating. He scored 8 points in each game. But in consecutive wins over the Cavaliers and Thunder, Porter responded by shooting at a 56% clip — including 5-of-13 from deep — with a combined 34 points and a plus-18.5 rating. Yet his hustle plays were arguably more impressive in a showcase of Porter’s continuing NBA maturation.
“I wanted Michael Porter to know, in front of his teammates, that I thought he played a great game (against Cleveland),” coach Michael Malone said. “Mike has had games where he’s put up big numbers, but I thought Michael played a complete basketball game. Offensively, shooting the ball with confidence, spacing the floor correctly. Defensively, being engaged. Helping and being in the right spots.”
Porter added: “It’s tough when you expect a lot of yourself, especially when it’s two or three games strung together where you don’t play your best. For me, it’s just trying to take the emotion out of it, really dissect it, and understand what I can do to be better. Just look at it from that angle. That’s what I’ve been trying to do every game.”
On Friday, the Jokic-Porter connection was especially strong with Porter cutting to the basket, then finishing Jokic assists with easy dunks. Porter took a dribble-handoff from Jokic in the second half, and with a clean look, cashed in an open 3-pointer.
The bench went wild as Malone sent double fist-pumps into the air at Ball Arena.
“The more chemistry that Michael and Nikola create is only going to help us,” Malone said. “Just a well-executed play. The timing was right, the read was right, and we want him knocking down the shot. Just really good basketball.”
Expanding Porter’s shooting confidence means a likelihood of more difficult shot attempts ahead, should the 22-year-old fulfill his ceiling as a prolific NBA scorer. Porter said: “I shoot a lot of contested threes because I feel like nobody can block my shot.” Porter also recognized his game must evolve to maximize his role on the team.
“Attacking the rim, I think that needs to be a point of emphasis for me more going forward and not just floating around the 3-point line trying to find my rhythm. When I finally touch the ball, after a while, trying to make a shot can be hard to do,” Porter said. “I need to find my rhythm and make it a point of emphasis to attack the rim more, and try to get to the (free-throw) line.”
But know this: When Porter’s game slips, and he fails to meet the sky-high expectations of teammates, he can expect to hear about it.
“Frustration is a good thing. Being mad is a good thing,” Jokic said. “To get on yourself and the team is a good thing. It’s just going to make us better, hopefully.”