The Denver Nuggets have split their first four games of the NBA restart, and they sit exactly where they were at the beginning of play in the bubble: in third place in the Western Conference.
One observation is that Denver squandered a chance to overtake the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 2 seed, but the upside is the Nuggets have not lost ground despite not having three starters for three games. They also sat four of them in a 125-115 loss to Portland on Thursday.
Denver (45-24) might stay shorthanded when it faces the Utah Jazz near Orlando on Saturday afternoon. The Nuggets have a two-game lead over Utah after the Jazz's loss to San Antonio on Friday, and a 1.5-game lead over Houston, which sits at No. 4.
Denver has been able to tread water despite not having guards Jamal Murray (left hamstring) and Gary Harris (right hip), as well as forward Will Barton (right knee) for the last four games. Forward Paul Millsap sat out for rest Thursday and should be back in the lineup on Saturday.
With the starters sidelined, rookie Michael Porter Jr. has filled the void and become a force after having inconsistent playing time before the league suspended play in March.
"I'm a different player right now than I was at that point even though some people argued that I should have been in the game," Porter said earlier this week. "I worked really hard during the break when we were off, and I think I came back a better player."
His work has paid off. After scoring 11 points in the first game back against the Miami Heat, he is averaging 31.3 points and 13 rebounds over the last three. He put up a career-best 37 points in an overtime win against Oklahoma City on Monday.
Porter has benefitted from playing alongside center Nikola Jokic, who had a triple-double against the Thunder (30 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) and continues to be the catalyst for Denver's success.
Like the Nuggets, Utah (43-26) was without four starters in its 119-111 loss to San Antonio on Friday. Mike Conley (right knee soreness), Rudy Gobert (rest), Donovan Mitchell (left peroneal strain) and Royce O'Neale (right calf soreness) all sat.
Saturday's game could feature more reserves than stars taking the spotlight, but both teams have been grinding through injuries for a couple of weeks.
"That's the thing about being here, everybody's good. So we just have to be ready to play. We're going to get adversity in one way shape or form," Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder said this week. "More than anything it's recognizing it and being mentally tough and handling it."
While the Nuggets will likely have Millsap back, the other three starters could miss their fifth straight game. Thanks to a deep bench, a rising star and a unique talent in Jokic, head coach Michael Malone has options.
"(Jokic) makes everybody better, no matter who's on the floor with him," Malone said. "And Michael Porter is a huge part of our present and our future. The sooner those two create that on-court chemistry, the better off we're going to be, not only in the moment, but looking forward. Those are two cornerstones to our franchise."
--Field Level Media