MIAMI – Six full seasons with the Orlando Magic, five different head coaches. So many, in fact, that Aaron Gordon lost count when talking about his NBA roots earlier this week, a few days before Gordon sparked the Denver Nuggets to a 108-95 win in Miami on Friday and a 3-1 lead in the 2023 Finals.
Gordon, the Nuggets’ rangy 6-foot-8 power forward, bumped the number by one, but who could blame him? Mix in Sean Miller from Gordon’s single season at Arizona and his coach back at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose, Calif., a decade ago, and he was playing the game according to seven different coaches’ wishes in eight seasons.
Gordon tried to put a positive spin on all the change, but even he knew the instability in Orlando was too many, too soon. “I got to pick the brain of brilliant coaches for maybe just a year at a time,” he said, “but still, I got to pick up little pieces from Jacque Vaughn, [James] Borrego, Frank Vogel, Steve Clifford, Scott Skiles. I hope I’m not missing anybody.”
Gordon also hopes he never has to go through that again. Since being traded to Denver in March 2021, it’s been one team, one coach for him and the Nuggets, a degree of continuity that has them all within one victory of a championship.
Michael Malone was Denver’s past, present and future, eight years into his current job to qualify as the league’s fourth-longest tenured coach. That’s the stability into which Gordon was dropped, his first opportunity to slip into a role long enough to own it.
“He already had a foundation and had been playing on it for three years, four years, five years. I’m not even entirely sure how long,” Gordon said. “Just being able to come in and be myself, that was the biggest thing. They told me from the jump, ‘We got you for a reason. Just be yourself and everything will work out.’”
It’s working out. Gordon’s 27 points Friday led all scorers, as did his plus-29 rating. That means Denver was outscored by 16 points in the 6:18 he sat down, whiplash-worthy and numerical evidence that confirmed all manners of eye tests.
Gordon helped the Nuggets outscore the Heat 66-52 in the two middle quarters by getting 15 in the second and nine more in the third. They came in spurts against Miami’s increasingly aggressive defense and provided cushion for the scare when Nikola Jokic went to the bench for a 5:14 stretch in the final quarter.
“That’s why we got him,” guard Jamal Murray said. “He’s a dog. He’s strong. He’s physical. He’s tough. He’s chill. He brings everybody together off the court, and he’s a selfless player.”
Gordon has shadowed Miami’s Jimmy Butler much of the series, typical duty in guarding opponents’ biggest threats. He serves as Denver’s “small ball” center in the non-Jokic minutes that more often have gone the Nuggets’ way in the postseason (Malone considered them a “crapshoot” in the regular season.)
“He brought his hardhat tonight,” Malone said.
Considering Orlando’s low NBA profile for the past decade or so, many fans still might be most familiar with Gordon as the dunk duelist vs. Zach LaVine at the 2016 All-Star Weekend in Toronto. Their showdown, arguably the best in the event’s history, generated some of the most inventive, breathtaking throwdown maneuvers in basketball history.
But that didn’t matter much in Gordon’s day job. He averaged 12.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 28.6 minutes in 428 games with the Magic – not bad, but not necessarily what some expected from the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 Draft (after Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid).
He arrived in Denver expecting and accepting that his primary role would be that of defender. It didn’t take long, though, for the Nuggets and him to see how Jokic’s extraordinary vision and passing, along with Murray’s playmaking, could unlock opportunities for Gordon offensively.
“Even in the first game, “ Gordon recalled, “it was just like a breath of fresh air just because it was like the first time I was able to just like get a back cut and then just like an easy dunk. There was just so much going on on the floor, so much spacing, and it seemed like everybody complemented each other so well.”
These days, he is one of the quickest and most sure-handed alley-oop finishers in the league. There seems to be almost no lob that’s beyond his reach, and he’s able to ram the ball through forwards and flip it in backwards. Even if he comes down with it, Gordon is able to twist and bend his way right back up, regardless of where a defender might be.
Gordon took 15 shots in Game 4 and made 11. That included 3-for-4 on 3s, including a sassy one from in front of the Heat bench that staked his team to its 86-73 lead through three quarters.
He made Miami pay as soon as the Finals started, taking advantage when coach Erik Spoelstra had smaller defenders switch onto him for some statement buckets. As much as possible, he didn’t bite on Butler’s pump-fakes, helping to keep the Miami forward in single digits in free throw attempts.
And when the Heat repeatedly blitzed Murray on pick-and-roll action, Gordon heeded some reminders from Jokic to flash out, giving Murray an outlet to relieve the pressure.
Malone has said several times this series that the Nuggets are not the place for specialists – they’re all expected to do multiple things – and Gordon exemplified that in Game 4. He was a player in full.
“If you sacrifice yourself for something bigger than yourself, the team,” Jokic said, “that’s why I think the one upstairs gave him the game that he had. He was our best player on the floor. And guarding the best player every night, that’s a tough job, and maybe he’s not going to get a lot of credit, but we know what he’s doing for our team.”
Gordon says he sees that up and down Denver’s roster, a selflessness that is at its peak now as the Finals shift back to mile-high territory.
“It’s really rare. It’s a blessing,” he said. “It’s awesome to play with these guys. … They’re so passionate about basketball, and they understand that you’ve got to keep energy in the ball, and if you play the right way, everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.”
Of fitting in, he said late Friday, “It was nice just knowing that I could be myself, and that was enough. I didn’t have to be any more or any less. I get to just do what the team asks of me, and sometimes it’s score, sometimes it’s rebound, sometimes it’s defend the best player, sometimes it’s make plays.
“It could be something different on any given night, but every night I get to just be myself.”
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