Michael Malone relied on two rookies to save Nuggets’ season: “At some point, we’d have to play some defense”

Whatever happens for the remainder of this gripping first-round series, the Nuggets can look back on Game 5 and thank two rookies, both reserves, for helping to stave off elimination.

In Michael Malone’s never-ending quest to find a defensive formula capable of slowing Utah’s rollicking offensive attack, he turned to first-years Michael Porter Jr. and P.J. Dozier for the majority of the second half Tuesday night. Together, they rode alongside Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Jerami Grant to force a do-or-die Game 6 on Thursday.

Both rookies rewarded their coach’s confidence in the form of physical, aggressive defense that helped hold the Jazz to just 44 points the entire second half on only 43% shooting from the field. Over sixteen quarters of the first four games of the series, only once did the Nuggets hold the Jazz to fewer than 25 points in a period.

On Tuesday, with their season on the line, they did it in back-to-back quarters. And Porter, who was benched because of his defense, and Dozier, who didn’t see a second of action in Game 4, were both integral.

“We knew that we just couldn’t keep on trying to outscore this team,” Malone said. “At some point in time, we’d have to play some defense.”

Malone’s excitement was palpable when Porter stymied Jordan Clarkson early in the fourth quarter, stuffing the sparkplug scorer with an excellent display of timing and anticipation. And then when Porter came down and drained a turnaround jumper over Clarkson, it was impossible not to see Malone’s fist-pump and leap as he tried to will the shot through the bucket.

Porter was taken out of the starting lineup following Game 3, and Malone lauded his improved discipline coming off the bench.

“I thought he was tremendous on defense tonight,” Malone said. “He’s growing up. He’s taking that challenge personally.”

Dozier could’ve been equally dispirited after not playing two nights earlier, but instead his long frame bottled up and blocked a Mike Conley drive late in the third quarter to fuel an easy transition layup.

“Unsung hero,” said Malone.

Added Murray, Game 5’s headline hero: “He’s not no rookie, he’s talking to everybody, getting me going.”

In a number that was indicative of Denver’s defensive urgency, the Nuggets held the Jazz to zero fastbreak points in the second half after yielding 13 over the first two quarters.

It was a number Malone emphasized in the jubilant postgame locker room.

Jokic said he thought it was their defense that opened up the floodgates in the second half, and allowed the Nuggets to outscore the Jazz 63-44.

“We had really good energy on the defensive end,” said Jokic, which led to ample transition opportunities. Earlier, Malone had attributed the Nuggets’ sluggish offense to the fact that they were constantly facing a set Jazz defense.

“Easy offense,” Jokic said. “That’s how you get confident.”

But more than the easy offense, and more significant than the defensive contributions from both rookies, Jokic alluded to something that hadn’t been with the Nuggets throughout the first four games of the series. He spoke to a trust factor that revealed itself in the second half of Game 5.

“Sometimes, to be honest, we didn’t even know what we were doing,” he said.

“We were just aggressive, we were just helping each other. When you have a good energy and players playing for each other, helping each other, even if you make a mistake, someone’s going to be there to help you. I think the energy won the game for us,” Jokic said, before giving props to his partner in crime.

“And Jamal.”