Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr. “starting to feel a little bit more athletic”

LOS ANGELES – As the Nuggets’ locker room cleared out late Friday night, having secured one of their most satisfying wins of the season, Michael Porter Jr. was incredulous when he learned of the run his team had assembled over the last five weeks.

Since Dec. 7, the Nuggets have lost three times compared to their 15 wins.

“That’s crazy,” Porter said after the Nuggets knocked off the Clippers, 115-103, while Nikola Jokic rested his sore wrist in Denver.

“That’s crazy,” he repeated as a smile swept across his face, the Nuggets improving to 29-13 overall.

Porter was integral to the win with 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting, with four rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal. More significant than his scoring, which the Nuggets needed in the absence of Jokic, or his length, which they needed for the same reason, Porter flashed a confidence in his body that’s rarely been seen in the wake of three back surgeries.

There was a bruising aggressiveness that didn’t hesitate at the prospect of contact and a determination that’s led to four dunks in the last two games.

Late in the first quarter, Porter drove into a wall of Clipper jerseys and flung up a prayer with his right hand that dropped. It didn’t so much matter that the shot fell but rather that he’d tried it in the first place.

Frustrated that his 3-point shooting hasn’t been where he expected it (though it was still at 40% on the season), Porter said he’s tried to mix in drives within his offensive arsenal.

“I’m starting to feel better and better,” said Porter, who missed a month’s worth of games across November and December with a left heel strain. “My foot’s starting to feel a little better. My left foot is still healing, so I’m jumping off my right foot right now. Overall, I’m starting to feel a little bit more athletic.”

In another instance late in the first half, Porter caught the ball in transition, and instead of pulling up from outside, he went right at Nic Batum. Porter’s first step got him past the initial line of defense, and he finished, athletically, with a reverse layup past another Clipper defender.

Those were shots he wouldn’t have made in years past, let alone even tried.

“Just the aggression, the ability to get there, and the finishes,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, raving about Porter.

“… It starts with his health.”

Porter’s fifth year in the NBA (and fourth season he’s played) has yielded a more mature, more reflective player than the one the Nuggets drafted in 2018. Porter said that his daily challenge is competing against yesterday’s version of himself, not the one who was the No. 1 player in the country in high school.

“I’m trying to be patient with it,” he said. “I’m not trying to look too far in the past. Sometimes I get caught up, I’m like, man, ‘I could do anything in high school that I wanted athletically,’ and now it’s just being patient.”

Porter has grown in so many facets, beginning with his maturity. Beyond that, his game has aged into a more complete player and, lately, one physically capable of absorbing contact. That willingness, alone, is a marked and tantalizing step forward.

Without Jokic, Aaron Gordon shifted into a point-forward role for the Nuggets, while Jamal Murray continued hunting for his offense. As the Clippers’ defense adjusted to double-teaming Murray, Porter was there as a 6-foot-10 stopgap.

And whether he took off inside or spaced the floor from the perimeter, Porter proved a potent weapon whose confidence, physically, was brimming.

“We’re balling right now,” he said.

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