Denver Nuggets 105-94 Portland Trail Blazers: Three takeaways from preseason opener

It might have been just preseason, but the Nuggets showcased why they feel confident in their team for the 2019-20 season in a 105-94 win over the Portland Trail Blazers at Veterans Coliseum.

Paul Millsap had a game-high 14 points on 66.7 percent shooting to go along with five rebounds and two steals. Jerami Grant, the Nuggets top acquisition of the offseason, looks a seamless fit in his first game with the team, dropping 13 points, three rebounds and two blocks in the victory. And Michael Porter Jr. made his long-anticipated debut after an essentially red-shirted 2018-19 season. Portland was led by Mario Hezonja, who had 12.

Denver’s defense impressed throughout the game as it held Portland to 34.1 percent shooting, including just 20 percent from downtown. The Nuggets now travel to Los Angeles to face the Clippers on Thursday.

“Like most preseason games, I thought there was a lot of good things and a lot of things we need to clean up,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told reporters after the game. “We did some good things and a lot of guys got a chance to play. That was also a positive.”

MPJ is here

Porter Jr. has waited almost 572 days to get back on a basketball court for an official game. It finally happened Tuesday night as he checked in at 4:30 mark in the third quarter.

Porter Jr. received a round of applause from the Portland crowd and rust didn’t appear to be a factor when he checked in. Within his first minute of action, Porter Jr. received the ball from behind the arc, drove in and did a step back from just inside the arc to convert his first bucket. The Nuggets bench went wild, clearly enjoying the moment that was essentially 18 months in the making.

“To finally be out on the court, it’s such a blessing,” Porter Jr. told Altitude Radio 92.5 FM after the game.

The rookie forward, who was drafted with the No. 14 pick in the 2018 draft, finished the game with nine points and three rebounds on 57.1 shooting in 17 minutes. As exciting as Porter Jr.’s first preseason game was, he will need to gain more familiarity with the Nuggets’ concepts on both sides of the floor if he wants to secure a consistent spot in Malone’s rotation.

“My biggest takeaway is he’s got to give the defensive end just as much attention to detail as he does on the offensive end,” Malone said. “He’s a gifted scorer and he can make big, big shots in tough spots but he’s got to be locked in on defensive end. If he does that, he’s got an chance to be an excellent player.”

Overall, Porter Jr. displayed the natural scoring ability and athleticism that made him arguably the best high school player in the nation just two years ago.

“Going into tonight, I know there were a lot of expectations on me,” Porter Jr. said. “I didn’t get in until the third quarter and I was thinking I’m going to go out there and have fun. I haven’t been on a basketball court for a while, so it felt good.”

Power tandem

Both the experienced Millsap and the emerging Grant impressed in the Nuggets’ preseason opener, as the pair alternated to showcase a tantalizing mix of skillsets. Millsap showed an unrelenting craftiness in the low post and was equally as deadly from behind the arc – going 2-for-2.

Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly has long coveted Grant and the 25-year-old shined in his first action as a Nugget. Grant’s ability to get end to end quickly and impact both sides of the floor with his athleticism will be a welcome addition this season and his three-point shot was as advertised as he hit 3-of-5 from behind the arc.

 The fact that both men are solid defenders and have unique skills on offense provides Malone with opportunities to tinker with matchups and alter the Nuggets style of play when needed. The coach also provided another wrinkle to consider as he played both men together at the end of the second quarter in a small-ball lineup. The pair sparked an 8-2 run to finish the quarter and give Denver a 52-50 lead heading into halftime. It will be fascinating to see how the pair is utilized throughout the season.

Monte comes in hungry

The Nuggets won’t be happy with their overall assist-to-turnover ratio (0.8), but Monte Morris’ steady hand remained in a strong preseason opener. The team’s sixth man and reserve unit facilitator was active Tuesday, scoring 12 and adding four assists. More importantly, the 24-year-old showed an assertiveness in wanting to drive into the lane to create opportunities or earn trips to the line (he shot 3 of 3 from the charity stripe).