The 21-year-old point guard sustained an ankle injury in their previous game against the Utah Jazz. And after participating in a small workout at practice a day later, Porter was on the verge of sitting on the sidelines of the Staples Center in street clothes due to injury — which had become a familiar scene for the USC prodigy.
But on Sunday, Porter made his long-awaited Staples Center debut amid the Rockets’ 95-85 loss to the Lakers. And in spite of Houston’s losing streak extending to five following the results of Tuesday’s contest, Porter’s play against the Lakers was a glimpse into what the Seattle native could become once his development reaches his maximum potential.
“When I was in college, we played in Staples against TCU, and I was hurt that game — so I could not play. In Cleveland, when we played against the Lakers at Staples, I was hurt again. And just last year, when we played at Staples it was the same thing. Every time my team played at Staples I was hurt. I definitely wanted to play this time around, and I know it’s going to be fun.” — Porter
During the Lakers’ two-game sweep of the Rockets, Porter displayed his yearning to become an improved defensive player. It’s an attribute Porter acknowledged he must enhance in his pursuit for greatness at the highest level.
He took on the challenge of defending LeBron James one-on-one on several occasions and had a handful of defensive stops to prevent the four-time MVP from scoring. Porter’s defensive efforts on James brought energy onto the floor for the Rockets, as Christian Wood mentioned following Game 1 of the mini-series.
Porter’s best defensive stop on James took place with 7:42 remaining in the third quarter. Russell Westbrook attempted a bounce pass to James, who tried to back-door Porter for an effortless dunk.
Throughout his luxurious 19 years in the league, James’ back-doors sometimes consist of him pushing his defender in one direction while executing his off-ball movement going the opposite way.
Unlike DeMarre Carroll in the clip above from 2016, Porter withstood James’ physicality. By resisting James’ push, the slight delay ensued in Porter intercepting Westbrook’s pass attempt after filling in the passing lane.
Porter’s next defensive stop on James occurred late in the fourth quarter, with 2:24 left in the game. James tried to take Porter one-on-one, but failed to get past the Rockets’ guard — who again matched the physicality of the future Hall-of-Famer.
James then tried to back Porter into the low block, but he slipped as the two became tangled up. Since James was the enforcer on this play, he should have received an offensive foul when the whistle blew, but the official ruled against Porter.
Porter is far from a “LeBron Stopper,” but it’s worth highlighting his defensive progression. Coach Stephen Silas felt Porter did an admirable job defending James to showcase his new commitment to the defensive side of the ball.
“Kevin is big and he is quick, and he has the will to defend. His commitment to the defensive end is far better than it was last season. It’s him applying all of the things he learned from the things we did this summer. We also had conversations about him applying himself more on the defensive end, and he has started the season during that.” — Silas
While the defensive play against James was a small sample size of the defender he could become, Porter’s offensive production against the Lakers further indicated the embellished scoring threat he might potentially be.
Porter has shown the capability to blow past his defender as a slasher, but the ability to do it against one of the league’s best defensive players in Anthony Davis speaks volumes.
Although Davis is a big man, he has established himself as a solid perimeter defender with the skill set to stay in front of smaller players. But against Porter, Davis was unable to stay in front.
Porter blew past A.D. with a left-to-right crossover with an explosive first step to attack downhill. He got to the basket so quickly, neither James nor Avery Bradley had time to step up for help defense.
But when he wasn’t taking his opponent off the dribble against the Lakers, Porter displayed his development in his midrange jumper. A pull-up jumper that is starting to resemble that of Chris Paul.
Similar to the future Hall-of-Famer — but not as gaudy — Porter pinned his defender to his back hip coming off a pick, which created a one-on-one opportunity with Los Angeles’ big man. Like Paul, Porter executed a slight fade away over DeAndre Jordan to drain the 15-foot jumper.
“I feel like I’ve been improving each and every game. It’s a blessing to be in this position [to be the starting point guard for the Rockets]. I have to continue working. I have to keep it consistent. And I have to keep my confidence high and my head level in order to lead this team.” — Porter
Even though there were several goods to take away from his performance inside Staples, there were moments throughout the Rockets’ two-game series where Porter’s on-court transgressions against the Lakers made him appear as a dubious prospect.
But one must keep in mind that Porter’s just reached his 82nd career game following the Rockets’ departure from Los Angeles. In a way, Porter will officially become a sophomore player in the NBA when the Rockets take on the 3-3 Phoenix Suns on Thursday.
It’s going to take some time before the Rockets can truly see a positive return on their investment in Porter. But Houston is committed to the interim after picking up Porter’s fourth-year option — which would keep him under contract with the Rockets until the 2022-2023 campaign.
By then, the flashes of prominence Porter showcased in his first two games at the Staples Center should be the norm.