Didn’t see Aaron Gordon’s Game 4 coming? Neither did the Nuggets

  • Senior writer for ESPN.com
  • Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News

MIAMI — Calvin Booth would love to tell you that he and the Denver Nuggets front office foresaw a night such as Friday when they traded for Aaron Gordon in March 2021. That they’d run all the models and scoured hundreds of hours of tape on the burly forward and saw something in him that portended he’d be as perfect of a fit alongside Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray as he has been.

But in all honesty, the Nuggets general manager says, they were just looking to replace the production they’d lost when forward Jerami Grant left in free agency in 2020.

“We didn’t realize how talented he was,” Booth told ESPN after Gordon scored a game-high 27 points in the Nuggets 108-95 win over the Miami Heat to take a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. “We didn’t realize what a consummate teammate he was and how willing he was to sacrifice.”

Gordon had a different reputation in his first six-plus seasons with the Orlando Magic than what he’s built for himself as the ultimate star-in-his-role player for the Nuggets.

He was the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft, which comes with expectations of scoring and star power that never really fit well on Gordon. He tried to live up to them anyway.

“Knowing AG now, I understand it: He knows what a fourth pick is supposed to do,” Booth said. “But also there was no clear hierarchy. So he’s looking around like, ‘Is it me? Is it supposed to be me?’ He tries to fill that role but then gets critiqued for playing a certain kind of way.”

Once Gordon came to Denver, all of that changed.

The Nuggets’ hierarchy had been set for several years. The team was built around Jokic and Murray. Michael Porter Jr. was next in line as a scorer. What the team really needed was defensive toughness and whatever Gordon could give them offensively.

The Nuggets may not have fully realized it when they traded for him after he requested the Magic for a deal. But this was exactly how Gordon had always thought of himself.

“I felt like I was going to be a defender for this team, a defenseman for this team,” Gordon said. “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.

“I like to play defense. That’s my niche. That’s how I came into the league, defensive-minded.

“As far as the offensive side, it was just get in where I fit in, find cuts, find openings, find transition buckets, try and get easy ones, and then just — really just get in where I fit in.”

Gordon has been a defensive stalwart for the Nuggets throughout the playoffs, regularly defending the opponent’s best offensive player, no matter their size or position. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, opponents have shot just 39.8% from the field and 27.1% from 3 with Gordon as their primary defender in 19 playoff games.

In the first round, he held Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns to 36% shooting from the field and 11% from 3, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the second round, when he matched up with Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, he held him to 43% shooting and forward Kevin Durant to 39%. Against the Los Angeles Lakers, he matched up with LeBron James.

In Friday’s win, which moved Denver to within one game of its first NBA title, Gordon held the Heat to just 30% shooting and contested 70% of the shots taken against him.

“I mean, that’s why we got him. He’s a dog. He’s strong. He’s physical. He’s tough,” Murray said. “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.”

While the Nuggets have grown accustomed to Gordon taking on the most daunting defensive challenges, it’s still a pleasant surprise considering what they expected when they traded for him, and the offensive fit he’s settled into playing alongside Jokic, Murray and Porter Jr.

“You know, he’s playing a different role,” Jokic said. “He’s sacrificed himself and that’s why he’s a great teammate.”

Gordon is exceedingly popular in the Nuggets’ locker room for both his personality and his play.

He’s known to wear his teammates’ promotional T-shirts to workouts and events. Not just Jokic’s MVP shirts, too. But former Nuggets’ guard Bones Hyland’s shirts.

“He really could win that teammate of the year award,” Nuggets assistant Charles Klask told ESPN.

So when he had a game like he did on Friday, everyone lined up to celebrate him.

“He won us the game today,” Jokic said. “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, and we’re really thankful for him.”

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