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Michael Porter Jr. scores season-high 34 as Nuggets cruise past Trail Blazers

Bennett Durando, The Denver Post on

Published in Basketball

PORTLAND, Ore. — Written on the locker room whiteboard Thursday night at Ball Arena was a summons for players to get to the Denver airport by 10:20 p.m. for their team flight to Oregon. It was an unrealistic goal, especially considering Nikola Jokic’s typically methodical postgame process and media obligation.

So maybe the Nuggets were a little late to take off. They made it to Portland just fine.

And after a slightly slow start at Moda Center the next night, the defending champions took off and earned a 127-112 win over the Blazers, sweeping a back-to-back out of the All-Star break. Michael Malone called a timeout after three early turnovers yielded an 8-3 deficit. Then Denver cruised.

The Nuggets (38-19) gave Jamal Murray the night off to avoid straining him in the back-to-back after he went into the break dealing with shin splints. His absence was more for precautionary reasons after an encouraging performance against the Wizards and before a marquee matchup Sunday at the Warriors. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, on the other hand, played after missing the second half of Thursday’s game with a sprained finger.

Without Murray, Jokic posted a triple-double by the end of the third quarter for the second time in 24 hours, and Michael Porter Jr. scored a season-high 34 points on 21 shots to go with a dozen rebounds.

“I was just getting easy shots. My teammates were finding me in transition,” Porter said. “When a player like ‘Mal is out, a lot of guys have gotta step up.”

“Michael is such a big target, and (defenders) play on the high side, so they’re trying to make him a 2-point scorer,” Malone said. “And he’s shown that he can do that just as efficiently (as scoring from three). This was a night when Michael played at a high level throughout the course of the game.”

Jokic finished the night with 29 points, 15 boards and 14 assists on 12-of-17 shooting. With 2:37 remaining in the first half, he missed his first shot in 15 attempts since the break. Aaron Gordon also supplied another efficient and well-rounded game, going for eight points on 4-of-5 shooting (all in the first half) and seven assists.

Denver ultimately plans to use Gordon at the backup five spot during the playoffs, but Zeke Nnaji has provided a revitalizing stretch of games at the right time as Malone takes stock of his depth late in the regular season. Nnaji earned more minutes at center Friday after blocking four shots against the Wizards. His highlight this time was a soaring tip-in offensive rebound while sandwiched by airborne defenders. He has now played in five consecutive games after not appearing in nine of the previous 12.

 

“He’s a great offensive rebounder,” Malone said. “And I love when he rebounds in traffic, takes his time, gathers, goes up strong and dunks it. That’s always so much fun to watch. I thought he had some very good defensive possessions tonight. Fighting (Deandre) Ayton in the post. Got a steal. Working to front him in the lane. … Zeke is getting an opportunity, and to his credit, he’s taken advantage of it.”

As has been the usual pecking order this season, Reggie Jackson started in place of Murray and G League All-Star Collin Gillespie filled in at backup point guard. Some of his NBA minutes have been empty ones recently, but his 3-point shooting and nose for getting Jokic the ball was a major boost in Portland. Gillespie registered his first career double-digit scoring game with 18 points. He was perfect on four attempts beyond the arc and tacked on four assists without a turnover.

“My teammates are great. They’ve been awesome all year,” Gillespie told The Denver Post. “Obviously going down, playing in the G League, these guys are tuned in. They know how we’re doing down there. So obviously coming up here, they just told me to be aggressive, play my game. And it’s easy to look really good with that group that I’m (playing) with, so they make it really easy for me.”

It was a solid enough individual outing that when Christian Braun sliced to the basket for a layup from Jokic, the Blazers’ public address announcer declared Gillespie had just scored.

And a solid enough outing that it even made Jokic jealous.

“The guys gave Collin the game ball for his performance,” Malone said. “And upon seeing that some of the guys gave Collin the game ball, Nikola said, ‘What the hell are you doing? I just had a triple-double. That’s my game ball.'”

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