After finding himself in a flurry of criticism following his Game 4 postgame comments, Denver Nuggets rookie Michael Porter Jr. stepped up in Game 5 on Friday night to hit the biggest shot of the game, playing a key part in forcing a Game 6 against the LA Clippers.
With the Nuggets up by two with 1:11 left, Porter caught the ball on the wing and -- despite not having made a shot yet and it being only his third attempt of the game -- he pulled up and drilled it to give Denver a five-point lead.
The Nuggets went on to beat the Clippers 111-105 to pull to within 3-2 in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals series in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
"What you love about Michael is, whether it's his youthful inexperience or not really understanding the magnitude of the situation, he has supreme confidence," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. "The guy is a tireless worker. He's a gym rat. And for every shot he makes in a game, he's had thousands upon thousands of reps in a practice gym. So what it says is that he has confidence in himself, we have confidence in him, and maybe we didn't find him, he didn't make many shots before that, but every time that kid shoots the ball, I think it's going in."
Porter finished with seven points in 23 minutes on 1-of-3 shooting. He also came up with a clutch block on center Ivica Zubac and hit two clutch free throws in the closing seconds.
"My offense wasn't really flowing tonight, but for me, I don't just want to be an offensive player, I want to be an all-around player," Porter said. "Like you said, I get criticized at times for my defense, but that's an area I want to improve."
But it was Porter's clutch 3 that put the Nuggets in position to close out a 16-point comeback on the favored Clippers.
"Everybody knew it wasn't the best shot selection, but something made me shoot it, so I shot it," Porter said with a smile. "It was really a God thing. It was a clutch shot, but I'm just glad I could help my team, in the last couple minutes, come away with that dub."
Following Game 5, in which Porter scored 15 in the first half but was largely absent on the offensive end in the second half, the rookie voiced that his lack of scoring was due to not touching the ball. His comments drew a reaction from media and active players, including Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, who tweeted his disapproval.
"I kinda tried to block that out. Everything I said -- I stand by what I say. And I didn't mean it in any type of disrespectful way or anything like that," Porter said. "Coaches and my teammates, they all know that. We talked as a team. Everybody was on the same page coming into today. But Dame and those guys, I respect all those guys -- especially those superstars in the league talking to a young guy like me. You want to listen. You don't want to have an ego and think you're always right. So I took what those guys said, and I listened to it. Everybody has their opinion, but that was blocked out before today, and everybody was on the same page."
Malone said the Nuggets addressed Porter's postgame comments before Game 5 and acknowledged those kinds of things are better kept within the locker room.
"During the playoffs, the last thing you want is any kind of a distraction, and if those frustrations are there for Michael, or anybody, it's much better to keep those conversations internal, in the locker and amongst ourselves," Malone said.
The Nuggets' season was on the ropes well into the third quarter as the Clippers took a 16-point lead, with all the momentum in their favor. Veteran forward Paul Millsap sparked a mini-run to close the third, keeping Denver close and setting up a fourth-quarter push from Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.
Though Millsap was the spark, the veteran sat the entire fourth quarter as Porter closed the game. Malone said he intended to go back to Millsap, but with the group on the floor playing well together, he decided to let it roll.
It was a strikingly similar situation to what the Nuggets faced in their opening-round series against the Utah Jazz, when they came back from a 3-1 deficit. In Game 5 of that series, Utah led by 15 in the third quarter, before Denver outscored the Jazz 61-36 to start its series comeback.
Malone said after Game 4 against the Clippers that his team could draw on the experience of coming back against the Jazz where the focus wasn't on winning anything more than Game 5.
"We're not going home yet. We ain't gone fishing yet. We're gonna live to play a game number 6 and try to stretch this series out and try to win it," Malone said. "I know everybody's excited about the Lakers playing the Clippers in the Western Conference finals, but we're hoping to have something to say about that."