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NBA Finals: Aaron Gordon’s brilliant Game 4 proves he was Nuggets’ missing piece

MIAMI — After yet another dominant double-digit victory Friday night that gave his Nuggets a 3-1 lead over the Miami Heat in the 2023 NBA Finals and drew Denver within one win of the franchise’s first NBA championship, Jamal Murray fielded a question about whether he’s been able to reflect on just how good his team has become over these past two months. Denver has paired a consistently elite offense with an increasingly elite defense, eliminating a veritable All-NBA team’s worth of superstars all without ever trailing in a series or seeing a Game 7.

Murray, ever unflappable at the podium, offered an answer suggesting the Nuggets haven’t become anything; rather, they are what they’ve been.

“We believed and we knew how good we were for a few years now,” he said.

However long Murray and the Nuggets might have believed they could be this good, they’ve known, definitively, since the spring of 2021. That’s when they traded Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton and a 2025 first-round pick to the Magic in exchange for Aaron Gordon, who immediately proved to be a perfect fit as Denver’s starting power forward between Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr.

Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50)dunks the ball during the first half of Game 4 of the basketball NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, Friday, June 9, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) slams one home during the first half of Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat on Friday in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The Nuggets won their first seven games with Gordon in uniform and outscored opponents by 46 points in 117 minutes with Jokić, Murray, Gordon and Porter sharing the floor. They went into Los Angeles and beat the Clippers wire-to-wire, with Gordon stepping up and clamping down on Kawhi Leonard. They went from a pretty good team to a team that could win the championship; Gordon’s arrival made them complete … if only for a moment, before Murray’s torn ACL left them missing a piece once more.

“I love Gary Harris. I love R.J. Hampton,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told Mike Singer of The Denver Post after the trade. “But this was a necessary move.”

It took two years to see just how necessary: for Murray to get healthy, for Porter to get healthy, for Jokić to continue his ascent into one of the greatest basketball players the sport has ever seen, for the full force of the super-weapon the Nuggets have been building in the Rocky Mountains to be ready to be unleashed. On Friday, though, what made Gordon’s addition so necessary was plain as day for all to see, as the 27-year-old forward turned in the game of his life in the game of his life: a playoff-career-high 27 points on 11-for-15 shooting, seven rebounds, six assists and a steal in 42 minutes of work, during which the Nuggets outscored their hosts by a blistering 29 points.

“He brought his hardhat tonight, and was just a warrior on both ends for us,” Malone said. “... Making 3s, getting to the foul line, guarding at a high level. Aaron did it all for us tonight. He really did.”

Added Jokić: “He was our best player on the floor. … He won us the game today.”

He did it with his trademark boundless versatility; everywhere you looked in Game 4, there was Gordon.

There he was, hounding Jimmy Butler one-on-one, switching onto Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry, protecting the rim and rotating to the perimeter. There he was, bringing the ball up the floor to alleviate some of the full-court pressure the Heat have been throwing at him throughout the series to try to tire him out. There he was, running the offense like a seasoned facilitator, triggering dribble handoffs, leading cutters into open space, pushing the tempo in transition.

There he was, taking smaller Miami defenders to the woodshed with backdowns in the post. There he was, punishing larger ones for giving him a cushion at the 3-point arc by stepping into his triples with confidence and cashing out. There he was, lurking in the dunker spot and back-cutting behind the Heat’s aggressive coverage, providing a vital counterpoint and alley-oop outlet for the Jokić-Murray two-man game.

“He's a dog,” Murray said. “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. He's been solid this whole playoffs, this whole season, the whole time he's been here. He's been great. He just wants to win.”

And in the fourth quarter, with Jokić sitting on the bench with five fouls, there was Gordon, starting power forward-turned-backup center, filling the void — teaming with Bruce Brown to anchor the defense, teaming with Murray to stabilize the offense, holding down the fort and helping ensure that the five minutes, 15 seconds Malone kept the two-time MVP on the bench didn’t cost the Nuggets a golden opportunity to seize this series. When Jokić checked back in, Denver still led by nine.

“You know, all season long, it was like, oh, the non-Nikola minutes, kind of a crapshoot,” said Malone, who described feeling like he had to cover his eyes and white-knuckle it through those minutes. “The playoffs, our guys have … we cut our rotation down. We're limiting who we're playing. But the guys that are out there, they're competing, and they're defending. Maybe our offense may not be as beautiful as it is with Nikola, but the five guys that are out there are defending, and that's the key to that group playing well.”

Gordon had plenty of help Friday. In addition to Murray’s brilliant playmaking (12 assists without a turnover despite a steady diet of blitzes and traps) and Jokić’s pedestrian-for-him-but-still-killer 23 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocks, all of the complementary pieces the Nuggets have added to their championship puzzle played key roles in the thrilling Game 4 win.

Brown, pigeonholed as some hybrid small-ball 4/5 coming out of Brooklyn, ran point with aplomb in the critical stages of an NBA Finals game, attacking with reckless abandon and scoring 11 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who’s struggled mightily with his shot in this series, made three huge fourth-quarter plays of his own: a strip-and-steal on Butler in the paint, a stop on Adebayo on a mismatch that he finished with the defensive rebound and a transition 3-pointer that put Denver up by 14 with just under two minutes remaining, earning a “Bang!” from Mike Breen and sending a whole host of Heat fans headed for the exits:

It was Gordon, though, who swung this game. After a buzzer-beating corner 3 by Butler gave Miami a one-point lead heading into the second quarter, Gordon began throwing his weight around against the Heat’s reserve corps, pounding his way to a 15-point second quarter that helped tilt the run of play in Denver’s favor.

“AG was being extremely aggressive,” Brown said. “They were switching a smaller defender on him, or in transition, he had a smaller defender on him. Every time, we want him to be aggressive. He will make plays for us. He'll make the right play every time, and tonight was his time to score.”

That idea — that on a team with so much talent and so much trust in the pass and in one another, it won’t always be everyone’s chance to score, but your chance will come — is elemental to what’s made Denver’s offense so devastating to guard all season long. To hear Gordon tell it, it’s also central to what makes this Nuggets team so special.

“That's just how this team is built,” he said. “We have guys that can step up night in and night out. Sometimes it's not going to be your night, and sometimes it is going to be your night. This team does a good job finding the people that are kind of in a rhythm and kind of going. When it comes down to it, it's just wanting to be great for my teammates. I know when my teammates need me, and [I’m] just doing it for my brothers.”

Gordon lacked that sort of consistency through the start of his career in Orlando — a span that saw him play for different head coaches every season, with shuffled-up rosters and divergent priorities.

“When I was there, it was something new every year,” Gordon told the Denver Post’s Singer after he was traded to the Nuggets. “New coaching staff, new GM, new players. It was just so much fluctuation all the time. We didn’t know whether we wanted to tank or whether we were trying to win. It was like having your foot on the gas and the brake at the same time. Burnout.”

On a team without a clear direction or established pecking order as it attempted rebuild after rebuild following Dwight Howard’s departure, Gordon occasionally stretched past his breaking point in an attempt to serve as a No. 1 offensive threat — a do-everything scoring and playmaking small forward in the mold of Leonard and Paul George. In Denver, though, he found a team with its core pieces already in place, all under the watchful eye of a steady-handed coach in Malone.

“I felt like I was going to be a defender for this team, a defenseman for this team,” he said Friday. “I knew they could score. MPJ, one of the best shooters on Earth. You've got a two-time MVP in Joker that can do everything on offense. You've got Jamal Murray that can go for 50 on any given night. I knew I was coming in to play defense and make their job easy. That's what I like to do.”

He found stability, an NBA home, a place where he could “get in where I fit in.” And, in the process, he found his best self, the version of the game that he was born to play.

“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,” Gordon said. “Yeah, that was cool. 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.”

Not every former top-five pick yearns for an opportunity to make everybody else’s job easy. That, the Nuggets say, is as valuable a part of what Gordon brings to the team as his defensive skill, glass-eating rebounding, lob-catching and complementary playmaking. Gordon has willingly and wholly sublimated his ego for the collective goal of striving for an NBA championship; Jokić, for his part, thinks we’re seeing that selflessness rewarded.

“I think if you sacrifice yourself for something bigger than yourself — the team, whatever … he sacrifices himself,” Jokić said, before turning his gaze skyward. “And that's why I think the one upstairs gave him the game today, gave him the game that he had.”

Maybe Gordon’s performance was the result of a benevolent higher power smiling on his sacrifice. Maybe it was just a player with incredible physical gifts being put in precisely the right circumstance to maximize them and taking advantage of that opportunity at a critical moment in his career. Either way: Game 4 showed precisely why Denver’s front office so valued Gordon, why Malone felt the trade to add him was so necessary, and why Nuggets brass held so tightly to what it saw in that 117-minute sneak preview back in the spring of 2021. He really was the missing piece to a team that could win the championship. And on Monday night back in Denver, it’ll get the chance.

“I mean, that's why we got him,” Murray said with a smile. “That's why we got him.”