NUGGETS

Malone, MPJ voice discontent at each other as Nuggets lose third straight

Mar 12, 2023, 6:37 PM | Updated: 10:24 pm

Michael Malone benched Michael Porter Jr. in the second half of the Denver Nuggets 122-120 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday.

Porter, who looked great in the first half, matching a season-high for points in the first half at 23, didn’t play for over a quarter of game time. He was inserted back into the game for a desperate attempt at a game-tying two or game-winning three.

Porter hadn’t played in the entire fourth quarter but he was nearly counted on to end the game with one shot. The Nuggets young wing wasn’t sure why he got pulled from the close contest or thrown back in.

“He (Malone) sat me the whole fourth and put me in with 20 seconds left, I think,” MPJ said after the game in the Nuggets locker room. “So, I mean it’s impossible to catch a rhythm then.”

Nikola Jokic ended up missing a contested heave at the buzzer after a jumbled possession where they couldn’t cook up a good look.

“Yeah, he had a really good first half shooting the ball,” the Nuggets head coach, Malone, said about Porter. “But, everybody in that third quarter played poorly. It wasn’t just Michael Porter Jr. The group that played together in the fourth played well, so I rode with them. Christian Braun’s energy, you know 11 minutes, seven points, three rebounds and had some really good defensive possessions. When you are down you are looking for a spark to give you some life and Christian did that.”

Despite fans clamoring for the rookie Braun, he only got into the game after several riding the bench because Jamal Murray left with a knee injury.

But MPJ? Yeah, he got flat-out benched.

It’s true the Nuggets fell apart in the third against the Brooklyn Nets, outscored 37-18. But, was it all MPJ’s fault?

When MPJ came to the bench in the third the Nuggets trailed 83-80, as the Nets erased an eight-point halftime lead. That would be a negative 11-point swing and according to Malone justified a harsh punishment.

Despite being part of a crumbling third, MPJ was a plus-six whereas Bruce Brown, who Malone showed much more faith in and let close the game, finished the game at a minus-six. Granted Brown was the only realistic option with Murray down to run the point.

Porter was the Nuggets second-best player in the first half after Jokic as they came from ten down for a great second quarter. He was 9-of-12 from the field including 3-of-5 from three. His 23 points matched a season-high. Yet there he was in the fourth wasting away on the bench.

With 4:39 left in the game, Porter was set to check back in but was eventually was pulled back on the bench for some non-apparent reason. He was visibly upset with the decision as he didn’t leave the bench to greet his teammates during a timeout a couple of minutes later.

Sure enough, with 1:08 left in the game, down by two, the ball found Brown who rimmed a three-pointer. Brown also missed on a floating jumper with 9.1 seconds remaining. MPJ was inserted with 23 seconds left in the game but never touched the ball.

In the end, Jokic single handily put the team on his back piling up a monster triple-double, tallying 35 points 20 boards and 11 helpers. His desperation three-pointer at the buzzer bounced off the rim and the Nuggets secured their second three-game losing streak of the season.

The loss was only the second for the Nuggets at home when scoring 120 points and now they have lost consecutive games with a Jokic triple-double after starting the season 25-0 when he achieved the feat.

Denver now embarks on a five-game east coast road trip starting with Toronto on Tuesday.

The plane ride to Canada could prove to be a little tense between Malone and MPJ. There just doesn’t seem to be any good reason why MPJ should ever ride the pine.

MPJ’s contributions are noticeable—his true shooting percentage is 61.9%, ranking among the better shooters in the league.

Over the last 10 games the Nuggets are now 7-3, MPJ has kept an elite stroke with noticeable improvements on offense and defense. And he’s got size at 6-10.

In a team terrible effort against a pathetic Spurs team on Friday, MPJ, to get his team going, drove the lane putting the ever-annoying Zach Collins on a poster. Collins in his true pest fashion came up on MPJ from behind. When Porter turned to confront him, Collins head-butted MPJ. Trying to push Collins away, Porter’s hand slid up on the gooseneck of Collins. The fracas was more damaging to the Nuggets than to the Spurs as both players were tossed and there is no doubt who is more valuable.

Sunday afternoon, the Nuggets needed some juice against the Nets. The Nuggets hadn’t had a three-game losing streak since early December. MPJ came out on fire. He went 7-of-9 in the first half drilling three from deep. In addition, he was quick to move inside to follow shots and rebound. He even had another big dunk.

Even in the dismal third period, the deficit increased from three to 11 once MPJ came out of the lineup. Things didn’t get better, they got significantly worse.

So, again, was this really on MPJ?

Through three, MPJ was at plus-six and Jamal Murray was a minus-13. Murray has just has really been off. His 5-of-19 shooting was a serious problem.

Murray has had his ups-and-downs and nobody is suggesting he isn’t incredibly important. He was suffering from some sort of knee issue and wasn’t able to be on the court during the critical closing moments and the Nuggets cannot with a championship without him.

Sure Porter has his ups and downs just like Murray but Malone takes pride in riding with the Blue Arrow through the tough times and keeps him on the floor. So how come coach doesn’t give Porter the same leeway? Porter has certainly earned a similar level of respect that Murray gets.

This issue Malone has with MPJ needs closure and quick. There are far too many stretches where Porter doesn’t touch the ball and frankly isn’t even in the game.

“Is it ideal? Heck no, we don’t want to lose three in a row. And now we are going on a very demanding five-game road trip,” Malone said. “I think the most important thing for me as a head coach is the delicate balance of coaching, holding guys accountable and teaching. Also, not panicking. Yeah, losing sucks but, let’s stay together, let’s stay poised.”

It’s gut-check time in Denver and the Nuggets need to finally figure out who they are going to rely on with just 14 games to play.

While Malone ponders this mystery of hoops, MPJ is open and he’s probably going to hit that shot.

***

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