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Jontay Porter relives fond memories after sharing NBA court with big brother Michael Porter Jr.: “I knew I couldn’t beat him up”

For just a split-second, Jontay Porter saw through a crack in the armor his brother had exhaustively assembled. He caught a glimpse of their past.

The Nuggets were rallying toward a comeback win over the Raptors, but a defensive lapse by Michael Porter Jr. briefly delayed the proceedings. He fouled Ochai Agbaji for an and-one then threw the ball against the base of the basket in frustration. A technical foul followed.

MPJ has established a poised on-court presence that reflects Nikola Jokic’s. The 25-year-old is expressionless when he buries a 3-pointer or gets to his spot for a floater. Expressionless when he makes a mistake or gets called for a foul. He is one of the Nuggets’ most heat-check-susceptible players, yet one of their coolest customers.

When he and his younger brother went at each other in the driveway, though, there was no such thing as stoicism.

“He would take the ball after I scored and chuck it at my head,” Jontay recalled, laughing. “And I’d get mad. But I knew I couldn’t beat him up. Because he was still bigger and stronger. So I’d kind of just yell at him, and then go tell my mom.”

The Porters were on a more level playing field at Ball Arena, where they shared an NBA court for the first time Monday night. Their parents could not be the litigators of any conflicts. They were in the stands. Jontay is on a two-way contract with the Raptors, so nothing is certain. As soon as he learned he’d be traveling with the NBA roster to Denver, he told the family to start booking flights.

“Even if I didn’t play, it would be cool just for us to be on the same court together,” Jontay told The Denver Post. “Just kind of brownie points that we got to play extensive minutes on the same court. Unfortunately, he didn’t guard me at all. He was too scared or something.”

Jontay played one of his best NBA games to date with 14 points and five assists. He guarded the two-time MVP Jokic commendably for a key stretch in the first half and made four 3-pointers to hold his own against his older brother, one of the most prolific outside shooters in the league. Michael went for 19 points and eight boards.

“I was really, really happy for Jontay,” he said. “Not only him being out there, but also the way he played. I should’ve told the coaches beforehand. They said it was on me that he hit all those 3s.”

They aren’t used to competing against each other, unless it’s driveway P.I.G. or one-on-one. Their basketball upbringings were always intertwined. Decisions were influenced by opportunities to play alongside each other. If they were on opposite sides, it could get ugly. Michael is a year older, and he always had the upper hand when they were children. Jontay estimates that he didn’t win a one-on-one clash until middle school, and he suspects Michael might have thrown a couple of games back then. Michael denied those allegations.

“As competitive as we are, nah,” he said. “I never tried to let him win. Big brothers always have that power over their little brothers. You can’t give that up.”

By high school, Jontay’s game was coming along. The matchup was at least somewhat evenly matched. That’s when the “fist fights and the pushing and shoving” really started, as Jontay remembers. When he won, he had his head on a swivel in case the ball was suddenly flying at him.

“It was either (Michael) won, or I won and it ended in a fight. Those were the only two options,” Jontay said, laughing. “He hates losing to me especially, and if I win, it’s cheating, apparently. Lot of fights that end up, two hours later, it was all love.”

The brothers joined forces to win high school state championships in both Missouri (Father Tolton Catholic) and Washington (Nathan Hale). When Michael committed to Mizzou as the top recruit in the country, Jontay reclassified from the 2018 high school class, knowing Michael would likely be a one-and-done college player.

Nuggets fans know what happened next. Health derailed the plan. Michael was only able to play 53 minutes of college basketball after undergoing back surgery. He declared for the draft anyway and fell to Denver at No. 14. He overcame two more back surgeries and the introduction of a leg brace to develop into a championship contributor. Meanwhile, back home, Jontay was positioned to be the star his sophomore year at Missouri. Then he tore his ACL.

“He could’ve went into the draft after that freshman year,” Michael said. “When I went down, he really shined. He decided to come back to Mizzou and play that second year, thinking he could be probably lottery, honestly.

“He was down and he was, I think, wondering if he should give up the game. But I think he saw me battle through my stuff, and I was always in his ear like, ‘Jontay, my stuff was pretty serious. You can get through this.’ … He would ask me how I would recover, and I would give him tips.”

Whatever amount of convincing it took for Jontay to keep pursuing an NBA career, MPJ believes it was worth it for nights like Monday, when they transformed into children again. Michael found himself half-rooting for Jontay’s shots to go in. But he still talked smack after making a floater over his little brother. Jontay tried to return the favor after Michael’s technical foul. “I told him just to chill out,” Jontay said. “I was like, ‘You’ve gotta play better defense.’” They swapped jerseys after the game.

The blip in Michael’s equilibrium was rare, but it made sense to the opponent who knows him best. Jontay admires the consistent level-headedness his brother has achieved. He believes the competitive fire never really went away, though. If there’s a layer of emotional armor, it can only be linked with the physical threats Michael has shielded himself from in order to keep his career alive.

“I think (his competitiveness) plays itself out in different ways,” Jontay said. “He’s not necessarily cussing people out or throwing the ball very often. Obviously tonight was an outlier. But I think it just shows up in his work ethic. The work he puts in, the dedication to his body. The treatment he’s doing. All that stuff is just his competitive nature playing out. He wants to be the best, and he’s not going to let these three back surgeries hold him back.”

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