Entering the NBA, Michael Porter Jr. drew comparisons to Carmelo Anthony by Denver Nuggets fans.

A big, scoring forward with versatile shotmaking, Porter played the part well after returning from back surgery. In establishing himself at the NBA level, Porter proved that while he had 1-on-1 scoring traits that could make him successful, he wasn’t just a mid-post isolation scorer. He operated well off-ball as a cutter, offensive rebounder, and floor spacer, a perfect addition to the Nuggets motion offense featuring ball movement, player movement, and post passing from Nikola Jokić. All he would have to do was be willing to learn.

But what stood out in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the most pivotal game of Porter’s career so far, wasn’t his offense.

Michael Porter Jr. played one of the best games of his career on the defensive end.

The Carmelo Anthony comparisons weren’t made just for his profile as a focused scorer. Porter struggled to make an impact as a defensive player for a long time, often appearing lost on the court. Porter also struggled to stay in front of his man in isolation situations, and he developed a reputation as a poor defender stemming from the series against Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz in the 2020 Bubble playoffs. Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson constantly hunted Porter, and the Nuggets were forced to remove Porter from the starting lineup on their way to a Western Conference Finals appearance.

Since that moment, Porter has worked tirelessly to become a better, more well-rounded player. He’s spoken about how the best small forwards in the game aren’t two-way players and has made comparisons to Kevin Durant, Paul George, and Jayson Tatum. Those are players that are often avoided defensively rather than challenged. Porter and the Nuggets knew that if he was to reach his potential, he would have to stop being hunted and start being the hunter.

Throughout the 2022-23 regular season and playoffs, the Nuggets have put pressure on Porter to be the best defensive player he can be. With Bruce Brown also a trusted option, the Nuggets have a safety blanket in certain matchups, but they don’t often need that anymore. Porter is holding up better in his matchups, and there are fewer guards that can take advantage of him in isolation and pick and roll situations like Mitchell did back in the bubble.

“The commitment [Porter] made to becoming the best defensive player he could be and buying into that was evident early on,” Michael Malone shared with media prior to the NBA Finals.

That commitment has helped the Nuggets a ton in the playoffs. The Nuggets have maintained a +148 plus-minus in Porter’s 549 minutes in the 2023 playoffs so far, which leads the entire NBA. When Porter sits, the Nuggets have maintained a -12 plus-minus in 224 minutes, the lowest on the team. Porter’s minutes have often served as a bell weather for Denver’s success, and his ability to stay on the court in almost every situation has helped Denver greatly.

Game 1 of the NBA Finals was a great example of Michael Porter Jr.’s defensive improvements across the entirety of his career. In Porter’s 43 minutes on the court, the Nuggets maintained an impressive 97.6 defensive rating. The 6’10” forward used his length and athleticism to affect shot after shot, rotating from the weak side to bother shots, defending in isolation with great success, and deterring Heat players from challenging him and the Nuggets at the rim. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, the Heat shot just 6-of-16 in Game 1 when defended by Porter directly, and that certainly matches the eye test for how many shots he bothered.

“Mike played an incredible game tonight,” Aaron Gordon credited postgame. “Just so well-rounded and so balanced, affected the game in so many different areas. He’s just getting better and better.”

The interesting factor in a Game against the Miami Heat though is not how successful Porter was, but how often he was targeted. Butler found plenty of opportunities to go at Porter in either isolation or pick and roll situations, and almost every time, Butler passed out of those possessions. Usually, Butler is very aggressive in going after mismatches, but he didn’t find a consistent advantage against Porter, who used his length, timing and leaping ability to deter Butler from seriously looking at the rim in Game 1.

(Yes, Porter fouled Duncan Robinson on the above pass attempt, but even forcing a pass in that situation on a relocation three is impressive.)

There are casual defensive plays too. Guarding Haywood Highsmith on the pick and roll below almost appeared second nature to Porter. In previous years, it would have been a struggle to navigate space like that, but Porter stuck with Highsmith and forced a tough shot outside of the restricted area, then snagged another rebound.

“Getting to the rim, playing great defense, pursuing the ball,” Jamal Murray said of Porter’s Game 1 performance. “He’s 6’10”, doing more than just knocking down shots. That’s dangerous.”

Finally, the best aspect of Porter’s improved defense is getting to see his plus athleticism on display again.

When Porter was first evaluated as a draft prospect back in 2017, he was one of the more athletic high school scorers of his generation. Pairing 6’10” size with elite leaping ability and a silky smooth jump shot had draft evaluators salivating. The back surgeries sapped much of that athleticism, but there are still clear flashes of how athletic Porter can still be. Seeing Porter block shots as emphatically as he did in Game 1 was joyful, and it put into perspective just how physically dominant the Nuggets can be in this series. Caleb Martin: too small trying to finish a layup at the rim with Porter lurking.

Of course, Porter’s finding ways to improve even while navigating a tricky health situation. He played 43 minutes in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the fourth most minutes played in a single game of his NBA career. For it to come in one of the most intense environments he’s ever played after the back injuries he has sustained is incredibly impressive.

“I still feel like there’s a lot of boxes I can still tick,” Porter shared when asked about his back. “I’ve definitely made strides throughout the year. The entire year I was kind of rehabbing while simultaneously playing.”

The back surgeries will likely always be a storyline when it comes to Porter’s potential. Navigating three surgeries in five years and still finding ways to get better and more impactful is an incredible achievement in it of itself. The Nuggets and Porter can’t predict what the future holds, but they are certainly enjoying this ride together and what it has meant for everybody involved.

For now, it’s cool to see Porter turn a weakness into a strength, impacting the game in ways many never believed he would. His mentality is different. His commitment to greatness is on display. It’s on display for the entire world to see.