Michael Malone was convinced after just three games. That’s all the time it took for him to start believing that Aaron Gordon was the Nuggets’ missing piece.
He came to that conclusion after the Nuggets’ win over a fully-healthy Clippers team on April 1, 2021. It was the third game that Gordon played with Denver after a trade deadline deal that moved him from the Magic to the Nuggets in exchange for Gary Harris, RJ Hampton, and a future first-round pick. Gordon finished 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists in the Nuggets’ 101-94, win but it was his three steals and defense on Kawhi Leonard that had Malone thinking big.
“Aaron showed us at that point in time that he can go out there and guard 1-5,” Malone said remembering back to that night two years ago. “And do a hell of a job doing so.”
“The reason that game still resonates is we all felt we had a real chance to win a championship that year, if we stayed healthy.”
Of course, Denver didn’t stay healthy. Jamal Murray tore his ACL 12 days later and the Nuggets’ championship hopes evaporated. Whatever visions Denver had of bringing the Larry O’Brien trophy home for the first time were put on hold.
“It kind of delayed our destiny,” said Malone.
But now the Nuggets are back and in the NBA Finals for the first time. And a key reason why is the 2021 trade deadline acquisition that looked like the perfect fit when he arrived in Denver.
Gordon’s defense in the playoffs has been superb. In Round 1 he guarded Karl-Anthony Towns. In Round 2, he checked Kevin Durant. In the Western Conference Finals, Gordon drew LeBron James. His primary matchup in the Finals will be Jimmy Butler. They’ve all been different types of matchups, and Gordon’s defensive versatility as he’s gone from player to player has been front and center throughout Denver’s entire postseason run.
“He’s been doing a good job of understanding the assignment of who he’s guarding while also knowing personnel,” Jeff Green said of Gordon. “I think he’s been doing a tremendous job. He’s part of the reason why we’re here. It starts with defense and he’s the head of the snake on that defensive end and the pressure he puts on their main guys.”
Butler, who’s coming off a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals win vs. Boston where he averaged 24.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game, represents an entirely different challenge for Gordon. He doesn’t have the size of Towns. He’s not an all-time bucket-getter and shot-maker like Durant. He doesn’t play with the same force that James does. But Butler does do a little bit of everything.
“Jimmy could be the most complete player out of those guys,” Gordon said.
Butler is crafty. He’s tricky. He’ll get you off balance and take advantage. Butler is averaging 9.3 free-throw attempts per game, which is the second most in the playoffs behind Giannis Antetokonumpo. He’s extremely active off-ball. He can deliver when the Heat need offense. He has a tremendous feel for the moment. He’s clutch. He’s a big shot-taker and carries a calmness during the game’s most stressful moments. He never plays out of control.
“Jimmy’s a difficult cover for different reasons than the guys I’ve guarded in the past, like KD, LeBron, KAT,” said Gordon. “Jimmy does everything. He does all the intangible things. He gets out in transition. He gets cuts. He gets offensive rebounds. He gets backdoors. He gets spin outs. He does a lot of the game within the game, as well as being really skilled. He’s a difficult cover.”
Gordon has a ton of experience playing against Butler — 23 games to be exact — which is mostly a result of all the years he and Butler spent in the Eastern Conference. With the Nuggets, Gordon and Butler have faced off three times.
Butler’s stat lines in those games are below:
April 14, 2021: 13 points (5-8 FGs), 3 rebounds, 9 assists
November 8, 2021: 31 points (10-18 FGs), 5 rebounds, 8 assists
December 30, 2022: 17 points (5-13 FGs), 6 rebounds, 8 assists
Butler’s 3-game average: 20.3 points (51.2 FG%), 4.7 rebounds, 8.3 assists
Gordon should be a great matchup against Butler. I can’t think of that many defenders in the league who would be better. Gordon and Butler are roughly the same size. Gordon’s physical too and can match Butler’s 1-on-1 strength. While Gordon historically struggles guarding smaller, quicker guards and wings, he’s best on players that resemble Butler’s profile like Leonard and Luke Doncic. One area where Gordon will have to stay locked in is off the ball. Butler loves to creep in for easy baskets when the defense is collapsing and his defender falls asleep.
Gordon has done it all for Denver in these playoffs. He only logged 8% of his minutes at backup center in the regular season, per Basketball Reference, but has been the only option that Malone trusts at the five when Nikola Jokic has been off the floor. Gordon is the lynchpin of Denver’s defensive game plan and the glue that holds the backside of the Nuggets’ defense together.
If Gordon has another standout series on defense and the Nuggets win the championship, his legacy is cemented. He’ll be an all-time Nugget, and it will be because he did the dirty work. It will be because he sacrificed. He dug his heels in defensively, took on the toughest defensive assignment in every series, and the Nuggets prevailed.
It will be because of defense.
“If I can take on that task of guarding the best player night in and night out and make it easier for the guys around me so they can focus on their jobs, then so be it,” Gordon said. “I’ll do that every time.”