The Nuggets are 2-2 in their first four games in the bubble, what is your biggest takeaway from those games?
Brandon Ewing (@B_Skip1717): My biggest takeaway has been the rise of Michael Porter Jr. After struggling in the Nuggets first seeding game against Miami, Porter has bounced back with scoring performances of 37, 30, and 27 points. Not to mention Porter’s rebounds in those games were 12, 15, and 12 boards again.
With all the injuries surrounding the Nuggets, it has provided Porter an opportunity to start and he’s definitely taken full advantage. Even when the Nuggets start to get players back from injury, it’s tough to see the Nuggets taking Porter out of the starting lineup.
Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): To piggyback off of what Brandon said, the explosion of Porter has been crazy. I love his work on the backboard, and he has been absolutely torching the net thus far. His performances haven’t gone unnoticed, and he has teammates raving about him on social media.
Second, I don’t know when this Nuggets’ group is going to get it together. I know Malone said the starters would be playing if they were able, but they’ve had four months off to rest. They’re all dealing with one injury or another. Depth is supposed to be a strength of this team, and it’s being tested right now. They need to get starters on the floor to knock the rust off before the games really count.
Evan Fiala (@eefiala): The correct answer is MPJ, but to me it’s comforting to see Denver’s depth hold it together and play well, which hasn’t always been the case this season. Monte Morris looks like the Monte Morris of last year, Jerami Grant hasn’t really been off the charts consistently but has looked pretty darn good and even Mason Plumlee was balling out in the fourth quarter (errant passes be damned). Heading into the playoffs when the rotation is cut short, having those bench guys contribute at a high level can help make a good team great.
Quenton Albertie (@qshironalbertie): There’s no way for me to say there’s a bigger takeaway than MPJ’s explosion, as he’s been so impactful as a scorer and rebounder that he’s making a real case to be a full-time starter, even when the team returns to full health. However, like Evan mentioned, the team’s depth has been playing pretty solid. If there’s a takeaway that doesn’t involve Porter, it’s that the team is displaying a high level of mental fortitude, bouncing back from a tough loss to the Miami Heat and playing without 3 starters in every game so far.
Denver has four seeding games left — Utah, Lakers, Clippers, Raptors — what are you most looking forward to in those game and how many will the Nuggets win?
Ewing: It really is tough to predict how the Nuggets are going to do going forward because of all the question marks surrounding their lineup. There is no telling when Will Barton, Gary Harris, or Jamal Murray are going to return, which concerns me.
All these games will take place in the next week and the Nuggets could very well be shorthanded for every one of them. Because of that, I will say the Nuggets find a way to get two wins, just like they did in their first four games in the bubble.
Bridgford: I’m ready to see Porter against truly elite competition because I don’t know that the starters are playing. Other than the Utah Jazz, we’re seeing three top-three seeded teams in four games. Porter has feasted on teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, but he can have his real coming out party with a strong finish to these seeding games.
I think Denver is going to go 1-3 in this final stretch. With Murray, Barton and Harris still showing up as question marks, I’m operating under the assumption they’ll continue to miss games. If that’s the case, I don’t think this current Nuggets’ rotation is good enough to hang with those top teams.
Fiala: Honestly, not much. I hope they play for real against the Jazz because beating Utah is always nice, but other than that I just hope the injury report shrinks and that a minimum Jamal Murray can play a game or two. I don’t think Malone will be going all out in either of the LA games so I say at best they go 2-2.
Albertie: I just want the team to return to full health by the start of the postseason and for them to play with effort, enthusiasm and exceptional execution. If Murray returns soon and MPJ can continue his ascension by having stellar games when matched up against the league’s best forwards, I optimistically say the Nuggets go 3-1. However, it’s much more realistic to see them going 2-2.
What has stood out most to you in Michael Porter Jr’s game and his sudden rise to stardom?
Ewing: The thing that stands out to me is just how effortless the game comes to Porter. Everything just seems so easy for him, especially shooting the ball and rebounding. I tweeted this out during the Portland game, but I really do think Porter has the best looking jump shot in the entire NBA.
No matter who is guarding him or how they are guarding him, Porter can just shoot over the defender and score from anywhere on the court. Porter is the definition of a walking bucket and that is something the Nuggets have desperately been searching for over the past few seasons. I really think Porter is the missing piece for Denver and their push for a title.
Bridgford: The aspect of his game that has stood out the most to me is how he gives this team a legitimate go-to option that’s not named Nikola Jokic. Jokic was this team’s bailout at all times. If it was late in the shot clock and they had no shot, you could get him the ball, and he could make something happen. Now, they have another choice.
Like Porter said, he can shoot over any defender. Unless you put a power forward on him, you’re going to be at a height disadvantage, and, if you do make that call, he has the speed to blow by them. Porter’s shot-making from every level of the floor is outstanding, and he’s made the case that he can’t be benched regardless of the situation.
Fiala: That he’s not afraid to let it fly from deep. The Nuggets aren’t that great of a three-point shooting team and some guys are too gun shy while others are a little trigger happy. Porter has a sweet enough shot that rarely will I think he should pass up some shots.
The other takeaway, which is more important in my opinion, is that with Porter as a legit scoring threat Malone should be able to stagger the rotations so that one of Porter, Jokic, Murray and even Barton will always be on the floor. Even when Malone tries to go with an all-defense lineup, someone should be able to score.
Albertie: When you watch MPJ play you just can’t help but think about terms ‘pure shooter’ and ‘real hooper.’ He’s an instinctive player, whether it comes to scoring or crashing the boards, and his shooting touch just isn’t something you often see in 6’10” forwards. The more he works on his ball-handling, he’s going to be the type of player that teams start throwing doubles at.
Between Porter, Murray and Jokic, the Nuggets now seem to have the makings of their own Big Three.
Do the Nuggets injury issues concern you as we inch closer to the playoffs?
Ewing: They concern me a fair amount and the more these seeding games go on, the more concerned I get. The Nuggets only have four games remaining before the playoffs, which really is not far away. It is concerning that Barton, Harris, and Murray might play their first games in the bubble once everything is on the line.
Now, all those guys are veterans and will probably be okay, but it is tough for you first game in over four months to be a high-intensity playoff basketball game. You also have to find a way to mesh those guys with Porter, who should be getting at least 25 minutes a night in the playoffs. The sooner all these guys can get back on the court, the better Denver will be going into the postseason.
Bridgford: Absolutely. With so little time to prepare, Denver needed to use these games to get their chemistry after four months off. Instead, we’ve seen heavy minutes from guys like Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier, who don’t figure to be key rotation pieces in the playoffs. Even if they’re playing regular minutes at that time, they still figure to be the backups to the currently injured starters.
Harris is the one that bothers me the most. Barton is a microwave scorer that can get hot at any time. Murray doesn’t rely too much on others to create for him. Meanwhile, Harris has been struggling with injuries and consistency since he signed his contract extension. He needs to be out there with Jokic getting into a rhythm. As he continues to miss more time, the possibility of him becoming a liability in the playoffs only increases.
Fiala: Yes, yes, yes. Part of me hopes Malone is just being coy with it and that Murray or Barton will at least be able to play in a game or two before the playoffs, but I won’t lie that I’m worried things really are this bad. Tomorrow’s game against Utah should be telling about where things stand on that front.
Albertie: Before the postseason starts, the biggest concern when it comes to the injuries is chemistry and rhythm once they come back. However, after the postseason, if one or both of Murray and Barton are still on the sidelines, then my concern is simply how far they can go in the playoffs. Malone seems to be optimistic about his team returning to full health before the postseason starts though, so I see no reason that I shouldn’t be.