DENVER (AP) — Aaron Gordon isn’t just Denver’s defensive stalwart, he’s their jump starter.
Gordon hounded Jimmy Butler into one of his worst playoff performances Thursday night, but it was on the offensive end that he really sparked the Nuggets’ 104-93 win over the Miami Heat in the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance in its 47-year history.
“Aaron really kind of set the tone on both ends of the floor for us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after Gordon muscled his way past smaller defenders in the paint to score 16 points while also helping to hold Butler to just 13 points on 6-of-14 shootng.
Gordon did most of his offensive work in the first quarter, scoring a dozen points on 6-of-8 shooting and pulling down four of his six rebounds as the Nuggets shook off a 10-day layoff to win their seventh straight playoff game and improve to 13-3 in the postseason and an NBA-best 43-7 at home.
Then, he spent the rest of the night making sure Butler didn’t lead the Heat to a fourth consecutive Game 1 win on the road.
By the time the Nuggets were serenaded off the court by a raucous crowd, Nikola Jokic had posted another triple-double, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. had double-doubles and Denver sent the Heat to the line just twice all night — unprecendented in the finals.
“We always talk about Nikola embodying Nuggets culture, and I think Aaron Gordon is a prime example of somebody who’s truly selfless,” Malone said. “He understood with Jamal and Michael coming back this year being healthy that his role was going to change. He never once fought it. He’s embraced it from Day 1 of the season and gone out there, whether it’s guarding Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and now obviously guarding a guy like Jimmy Butler.
“He does a lot of the dirty work for us, and a lot of times he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves.”
Malone bestowed the team’s defensive player of the game chain on Gordon, who, sure enough, deflected the kudos.
“Well, it’s really a team effort. I think the defensive player of the game could have gone to Michael Porter, too. He really stepped up on the defensive end,” Gordon said. “We’re switching a lot. Everybody is helping. We’re shrinking. We’re stunting for the stunter. It’s not just a 1-on-1 game. I’ve been saying that all week. It’s a team effort to slow that guy (Butler) down.”
Gordon had 14 points and five boards by the time the Nuggets went into their locker room up 59-42 at the break. That marked the largest halftime lead of a Game 1 in the finals since the Celtics jumped out to a 79-49 halftime lead over the Lakers on May 27, 1985, in a 34-point rout that was dubbed the “Memorial Day Massacre.”
Gordon has been the Nuggets’ best defender in the playoffs, doing commendable jobs on the likes of Towns, Durant and James in helping the top-seeded Nuggets reach their first NBA Finals.
Yes, James scored 40 points in the Nuggets’ sweep-clinching Game 4 in the last round, but his game-tying shot at the buzzer was tied up by Murray and then blocked by Gordon.
Gordon, who used to be the No. 1 scoring option in Orlando, took a smaller offensive role in Denver behind its three max contract players — Jokic, Murray and Porter — following his 2021 trade to the Nuggets, and agan this season as MPJ (back) and Murray (knee) returned from injuries.
“There’s really not a way to describe how valuable he is to our team,” Porter said.
Maybe Gordon remembered D-Wade gave him a 9?
It was surely enough for him to do it in the finals but it had to be especially sweet to do it against the Heat. Gordon lost the 2020 NBA Slam Dunk Contest to Miami forward Derrick Jones Jr.
Gordon thought he secured the victory on his final dunk when he pulled 7-foot-5 rookie Tacko Fall out of the crowd and had Fall hold the ball over his head before jumping over him and completing the dunk. Three of the five judges, however, scored it a nine instead of a 10, handing the title to Jones — and one of those judges was Dwyane Wade.
Gordon was traded to Denver the following season and took a back seat in the Nuggets’ star-studded offense — until Thursday night when he starred at both ends of the court.
In the end, Gordon was lauded more for his work on Butler than for his half dozen first-quarter baskets that got the Nuggets going.
“I thought he did a hell of a job taking on that challenge of guarding a guy like Jimmy Butler,” Malone said.
After extending his NBA record with his ninth triple-double of these playoffs, Jokic also praised Gordon’s game.
“Oh, I love to play with him. I love to play with some — I want to say dominant big men, if that makes any sense — but the best thing he did is accepting his role, and he’s really doing a great job of that,” Jokic said.
“Like today, he got it going. We were just getting him the ball, and he was really good in the paint today. He’s our best defender probably, him and KCP, and just to play defense the whole game on the best player, I think that’s really hard to do.”