How Michael Porter Jr. and Nuggets coach Michael Malone became the NBA’s latest bromance

It’s official: Michael Porter Jr. and Michael Malone are now a bromance.

Well, almost.

“I definitely sense it and appreciate it,” Porter said when asked about the trust of Malone, the Nuggets’ coach, following Denver’s eighth straight victory, and second straight over San Antonio, Friday night at Ball Arena.

“It’s definitely there. We’ve got a good bond. And all of us have got a good bond right now. And that chemistry is going to take us a long way.”

Trust between a young, offensive-minded NBA star and a grizzled, defense-oriented head coach was always going to take some time. But as the Nuggets keep rolling, and new pieces Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee keep jelling, all parties these days seem to be walking down the same happy road.

“I think he’s playing really well,” Nuggets center Nikola Jokic said of MPJ, who dropped 22 points and 10 boards on the Spurs, notching his fifth double-double over his last seven contests. “He’s making shots and he’s aggressive. He’s getting a lot of offensive rebounds, (although) maybe not this game. Just his presence in there, he’s one more guy who can rebound for us.”

Porter’s length and ability to score from anywhere on the floor have made him a fantastic foil for Jokic and point guard Jamal Murray, especially as the gifted forward has averaged more than 20 points per tilt since the start of March.

Yet it’s the other ways MPJ can impact a game — crashing the boards, defense, hustle plays — that are bringing him nearer and dearer to Malone’s heart.

Take the final 11 seconds of a nail-biter late Friday. With the Nuggets up 121-119 and Porter at the charity stripe with 10 seconds left, the forward missed the second of two tries, making for a nervy finish. The rock appeared to pinball in and out of center Jokic’s mitts for a few seconds before the Spurs corralled the loose ball and broke the other way.

Only rather than lament a lost opportunity, MPJ sprinted back on defense ahead of the San Antonio break — extending his 6-foot-10 frame fully underneath the hoop in the face of a driving, 6-foot-5 Keldon Johnson and getting just enough of the ball to deflect the close look.

The Spurs missed at least two more bunnies in the final 0.4 seconds as the horn sounded and the Nuggets escaped.

“I mean at that point, nobody has a man,” said Porter, whose Nuggets host the Celtics on Sunday to close out a five-game homestand. “We didn’t really match up, because everybody thought I was going to make the free throw. But it rimmed out. And then it’s my job just to get back. (Johnson) had a good push and I just got back and tried to make the layup tough.”

Porter’s defensive metrics aren’t significantly improved from his rookie campaign, as on Friday had him toting a 112.5 defensive rating — points allowed per 100 possessions, and a lower number is better — this season compared to 112.4 in 2019-20.

But besides MPJ’s offense, there’s a reason for Malone’s added trust: Porter’s fourth quarter defensive rating is 104.4, down from the 111.2 posted over his inaugural regular season. And his turnover rate of 7.6 in the final quarter — estimated giveaways per 100 plays — is down 3.1 points off his 10.1 clip of a year ago.

As a result, the forward has also seen his average minutes per game in the fourth quarter bumped up from 5.6 in 2019-20 to almost eight in 2020-21.

“I’m just trying to go out there and be better than the night before,” Porter said. “Just how this team has certain goals so we don’t get complacent, I have several personal goals that I’m nowhere close to reaching.

“So of course, I’m happy, I’m enjoying the process of getting better and helping the team win. But I don’t let (any) of these numbers get to me, because I feel like I’ve got a long way to go. And I can get better in a lot of ways.”