Michael Porter Jr. scores career-high 19 as Nuggets survive 4th-quarter meltdown against Kings

Nikola Jokic tried to give Michael Porter Jr. a high-five for his defensive effort, but, alas, the Nuggets’ celebrated rookie left him hanging, still clearly with a lot to learn.

Porter made his first NBA start Sunday night, and the miss with Jokic was one of very few he had in a 120-115 victory against the Kings. Denver improved to 23-9 overall and 15-4 at the Pepsi Center.

Porter’s smooth, 6-foot-10 frame was impossible to ignore as he poured in a career-high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field. He finished step-back jumpers, moved well without the ball and hammered a put-back dunk in the fourth quarter.

“I didn’t expect those numbers,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I knew that Michael, if he’s given minutes and given a chance to play, he’s just too talented, the game comes too easy for him, especially offensively.”

The victory didn’t come easily, however, as the Kings, who trailed by 14 points with 5:32 left in the fourth quarter, got as close as three points multiple times with less than three minutes remaining. Led by forward Nemanja Bjelica and center Richaun Holmes, the Kings rallied. Bjelica drilled five 3-pointers, including two during Sacramento’s fourth-quarter run.

As has happened far too often this season, the Nuggets didn’t make it easy on themselves.

Denver took on the Kings without defensive stalwarts Gary Harris (shin) and Paul Millsap (knee). Neither injury is believed to be serious, but their absences were felt in a porous first half.

Harris was a game-time decision, and his absence gave Porter the opportunity to start.

“I was just happy to be able to start,” Porter said. He added: “I was just wanting to blend with that starting group and do what I could on the court to make their job easier.”

Added Jokic: “You can see his talent, you can see that he can shoot the ball, he can rebound, he’s a big guy. He showed that he can play.”

The Nuggets’ defense got better in the third quarter, when Denver limited the Kings to 24 points, including a scoreless stretch of more than three minutes. During that time, the Nuggets expanded their lead to eight points on an array of jumpers from Jerami Grant and Will Barton and headed to the fourth up 88-81.

Grant finished with 18 points while starting in place of Millsap, and Barton added 19. Jokic finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, and Jamal Murray managed to score 13 points.

Sunday’s contest came on the heels of Saturday’s win over Memphis, which saw the Nuggets cough up another double-digit lead in the victory.

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“We for some reason get bored with success,” Malone said prior to the game. “We go completely away from what got us the leads in the first place. … The way I look at it, I’m trying to be really positive heading into the New Year, is that if your problem is blowing 20-point leads every night, it’s a pretty good problem.”

Malone said his team has fallen into a nasty habit of getting up and then taking a deep breath.

“We relax and say, ‘OK, let’s try plan B now,’” Malone said. “And plan B is we’re not going to share the ball anymore, we’re not going to guard. Let’s see if we can beat them that way, and we let teams right back into the game.”

The Nuggets entered half up 62-57 after shooting 55% from the field. It was only slightly better than Sacramento’s 53%.

Barton and Porter were the Nuggets’ two biggest offensive sparks, combining for 25 points over the first two quarters. Barton knifed through the defense with his typical panache and Porter found his 12 first-half points through all kinds of manners.

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