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Matter on Mizzou: Michael Porter Jr. takes his lumps — and learns

Matter on Mizzou: Michael Porter Jr. takes his lumps — and learns

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Leonard, Clippers beat Nuggets 96-85, take 3-1 series lead

Denver Nuggets' Michael Porter Jr. (1) shoots abasing Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard (2) during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Four topics from beat writer Dave Matter that Mizzou fans should be discussing:

1. Porter takes his lumps — and learns

It’s been one eventful bubble for Michael Porter Jr.

It seems like another lifetime ago when Mizzou’s 53-minute man was pontificating about the coronavirus as population control, but the NBA rookie has since become an integral chess piece in the NBA Western Conference semifinals, a series that concluded Tuesday night with Porter's Denver Nuggets eliminating the Los Angeles Clippers 104-89.

The Nuggets get LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Finals.

Say this much for Porter: As often as he finds ways to say something that cuts across the grain, he usually redeems himself on the court. His most recent “He said what?” moment came after last Wednesday’s Game 4 loss, when Porter complained about a game plan built on … Denver’s two best players: big man sensation Nikola Jokic and point guard Jamal Murray, who up to that point was having a coming-of-age postseason. Porter scored 15 points in 34 turnover-free minutes but made bigger news after the game.

“We kept going to (Jokic and Murray),” he said. “They’re two amazing players. You can never get mad at that. But I just think to beat that team (the Clippers) we’ve got to get more players involved. We’ve got to move the ball a little bit better. We can't be predictable against that team.”

Asked a follow-up question, Porter added, “If I'm going be out on the floor playing a lot of minutes, I think I should voice that. I’ll probably talk to the coaches, just tell them what I see being out there on the floor. Just letting them know, ‘Look, they know what we're doing. We’ve got got to swing the ball. We’ve got a lot of players who can play basketball and score, so we’ve got to get some more guys involved.’”

Porter was both right and wrong. Yes, anyone who’s watched the Nuggets this postseason knows the offense flows through the team’s two best players. Other teammates have to find ways to generate their own scoring, whether it’s in transition or second-chance opportunities. Denver’s half-court possessions usually turn into a game of keep-away between Jokic and Murray. That’s by design because … they’re really good at basketball.

At the same rate, Porter’s comments are best said behind closed doors, especially for a rookie coming off the bench. When Porter’s postgame comments went viral last week, Portland All-Star guard Damian Lillard was quick to chime in, tweeting, “SMDH.” (Google it, folks.) Lillard followed with a series of tweets, clearly suggesting Porter should keep those thoughts within the confines of the team — the exact point Nuggets coach Michael Malone made after Sunday’s Game 6.

But give Porter credit. He stepped his Pumas into a flaming pile last week then scraped them off and made some pivotal plays in Denver’s Game 5 and 6 victories, including a late 3-pointer Sunday to push the Nuggets in front for good. It was Denver’s fifth elimination game victory this postseason.

There’s a lot to like about the 22-year-old’s play these past few weeks. Before Game 7 vs. the Clippers, he increased his playoff scoring to 11.8 points per game, up from 9.3 during the regular season. He’s the team’s No. 2 rebounder at 6.9 per game while playing almost exclusively the four position in Malone’s system. He’s kept his 3-point stroke close to 40 percent. His playoff PER (player efficiency rating) of 15.9 is higher than young Celtics star Jaylen Brown and Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton. Earlier in the series, he put Clippers big man Montrezl Harrell on a poster with one of the most vicious dunks of the bubble.

There’s also plenty of room for improvement. Before Game 7, he had yet to draw an offensive foul in 13 playoff games. He’s had more shots blocked (seven) than he’s blocked himself (six). He’s averaging 0.7 assists per game. That’s 10th on the team despite playing the fourth-most minutes. In the first series, Jazz coach Quin Snyder relentlessly targeted Porter on the defensive end, calling ball screen after ball screen to match him against Donovan Mitchell, who put together an epic seven-game series. That convinced Malone to move Porter to the bench.

But the Nuggets clearly haven’t lost faith. They got seven rebounds from Porter in 15 minutes playing time Tuesday as they spoiled the LA vs. LA series the network executives clearly favored.

2. Drinkwitz's Tigers give back 

Remember back when the Missouri football team called off a Friday practice a few weeks ago? Some observers scoffed, accusing the 2020 Tigers of "being used as pawns in a societal culture war." (That came from one of the many comments posted on that story.) Well, it turns out, the Tigers can walk their talk. The team spent part of that meeting building on plans it made this summer to launch projects to make progress within the community. On Tuesday, Mizzou shed some light on one of those initiatives.

Eliah Drinkwitz’s team has partnered with CarePortal to help children in the foster system and support foster and adoptive families. Once a week, each of three groups of football players meet and discuss CarePortal needs in different appointed cities and decide how to allocate funds based on a weekly budget.

"Our goal is to provide hope and make an immediate impact for kids," Drinkwitz said. "CarePortal has allowed our team to join in making real change in real time."

On its website, CarePortal describes itself as “a technology platform that connects vulnerable children and families to people who have something to give. Social workers uncover the needs. CarePortal makes local churches aware, giving them a real-time opportunity to respond.” In 2015, The Global Orphan Project created CarePortal as a way to mobilize American churches to care for foster children and vulnerable families.

Mizzou has fulfilled 46 requests through CarePortal over the last seven weeks, MU announced Tuesday, serving more than 155 children and 70 adults for a projected economic impact of more than $35,000. The football team has also been delivering backpacks full of school supplies to local elementary schools and sending them to schools in St. Louis and Kansas City.

3. Tanner Time for Red Sox

Another former Mizzou pitcher officially became a big-leaguer Tuesday night. Former Mizzou ace and Collinsville native Tanner Houck made his MLB debut with five shutout innings for the Red Sox against  the Marlins — and he commemorated his first career start with a special cause.

Houck didn't get to experience the national college baseball stage like past Mizzou aces Max Scherzer and Aaron Crow, but he's got the stuff to become the next former Tiger to make a lengthy stay on a major-league roster. He throws a devastating slider that became its own GIF last year in the minors.

I profiled Houck for a 2016 story going into his sophomore year at Mizzou, when he was already being tabbed as the program's next potential first-round MLB pick. Even then, when Houck was just 19, coaches and teammates were blown away by his poise and competitiveness. 

"He’s not scared of any hitter or any stage,” former Mizzou shortstop Ryan Howard, now a Giants minor-leaguer, said at the time. "He’s not going to back down. He was a freshman last year and he came out and acted like he was a fourth-year or fifth-year senior. The first game of the year he was pumping strikes. I asked him, ‘You nervous?’ He said, ‘Nah.’”

McCarthy loses 1st game with Cowboys, but might have won QB

Dallas Cowboys defensive end Aldon Smith (58) sacks Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (Keith Birmingham/The Orange County Register via AP)

4. Aldon Smith reborn in Dallas

If Jerry Jeudy would have hung onto a couple more fastballs, Drew Lock would have had the best opening weekend among Mizzou's 13 former players in the NFL. Instead, that distinction belongs to the guy who missed four full seasons because his own self-destructive choices - and is now an early candidate for NFL comeback player of the year. Aldon Smith, back and bigger than ever with the Dallas Cowboys, tallied 11 tackles, two quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and a sack in the Cowboys' loss to the Rams on Sunday night. 

It was Smith's first NFL game in exactly four years, nine months and 29 days. Here's a remarkable stat: Smith spent more days out of the league - 1,764 days between his final game with Oakland in 2015 until Sunday's return - than he spent in the league during his first stint. From the day he made his NFL debut with the 49ers in 2011, 1,526 days passed until that final game with the Raiders in 2015.

Smith's path toward career suicide has been well documented. In any other profession he might have run out of second chances long ago. But the arena is a forgiving place, and as long as he's true to his team and his sport - and, most important, his sobriety - his journey will be worth watching and supporting. 

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