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The Finale-Oop: Inside the Nuggets' unguardable crunch time play

Harrison Wind Avatar
March 15, 2024

Clinging to a 111-109 lead with 30 seconds left in regulation, the Nuggets dialed up their go-to, crunch time, end-of-game action to try and secure a marquee victory over the Celtics.

Jamal Murray dribbled the ball across the mid-court line. He initiated the play with a bounce pass to Nikola Jokic, who was standing at the top of the 3-point arc. Then, Murray got out of the way.

“I call that play 1-5. Get the ball to 1-5,” Peyton Watson said. “He’s going to make the right play.

And that’s what Jokic did.

With seven seconds left on the shot clock, Jokic hit Kristaps Porzingis with a spin move, then spun back to his left and got into the middle of the paint. Jrue Holiday then stepped up to deploy a double-team on Jokic, leaving his matchup all alone on the baseline.

As soon as Jokic saw Holiday abandon Aaron Gordon under the rim, it was over. The play had worked. Denver’s crunch-time money play had hit again.

Jokic threw the lob to Gordon, which he of course finished.

“Sometimes I don’t even need to look,” Jokic said. “I know where he is.”

The Nuggets’ new go-to play when they really need a basket isn’t some complex, masterfully diagrammed, intricate action that Jokic or the Nuggets’ coaching staff came up with during a late-night film session.

It’s basic. It’s rudimentary. It’s easy to identify.

But it’s unstoppable.

“A big lob in clutch time, it’s just a testament to how good of a passer he is, how much attention that he draws from the defense, and me just being ready,” Gordon said. “It’s pretty fun.”

The ‘Finale-Oop’ is born out of the Jokic-Murray two-man game, which itself is nearly impossible to stop and powered the Nuggets to an NBA championship last season. With Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope spacing the floor in the corners, the defense is incredibly compromised. On the season, Porter is shooting 45.3% on corner 3s. Caldwell-Pope is shooting 42.2% from those zones. Defenders just can’t leave shooters like that.

If the defense commits to stopping Murray and getting the ball out of his hands, he bounces the ball to Jokic. If the defense then focuses in on Jokic, he lobs it to Gordon, who’s always waiting at the ready in the dunker spot. It’s a role that he’s mastered since arriving in Denver three years ago.

“There are people in this league who think of the dunker as a dirty word,” Michael Malone said. “‘Wow, why are you putting me in the dunker? I can shoot the 3.’ It’s called the dunker because you get dunks. And Aaron Gordon probably embodies that better than anybody in the entire NBA.”

Gordon has 143 total dunks this season, the fourth most in the NBA behind Giannis Antetkounmpo, Rudy Gobert, and Anthony Davis. After only recording a 100+ dunk season once in 6 1/2 seasons in Orlando, Gordon has seasons of 130, 178, and 143 dunks (so far this season) in his first three full years in Denver.

“He’s the best dunker that I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Watson. “I’ve never seen somebody with the coordination. He rarely ever misses a dunk.”

Of Gordon’s 143 dunks this season (he’s officially 143-154 on dunk “attempts”), 69 have come off Jokic assists. Thirty-six of his dunks have come while patrolling the dunker spot, the sweet spot along the baseline that’s inside the 3-point line but outside the paint on both sides of the basket.

“I think he likes that he can throw it anywhere and I can go get it,” said Gordon.

Before the Nuggets landed Gordon at the 2021 trade deadline, Denver’s front office at the time surveyed the entire NBA and identified two players who in their mind were both gettable via trade and would be excellent fits at power forward next to Jokic, league sources said. One was Gordon. The other? Jonathan Isaac, a teammate of Gordon’s in Orlando at the time.

Denver made the right choice.

“AG’s timing, his poise, he’s never flustered in those situations,” said Watson. “He always knows exactly where to be. It’s a joy to watch.”

“He’s the perfect complimentary piece for Jokic.”

Gordon was an immediate hit when he got to Denver. Many within the Nuggets’ organization point to a victory over the Clippers in Gordon’s third game with the team as the moment when they began to believe that Denver could win a championship with this current core. Gordon demonstrated that he was the perfect fit right away.

Playing as a complimentary piece next to Jokic has allowed Gordon to truly unlock the best version of himself.

“We both grew up playing point guard,” Gordon said. “We see each other. He’s the player that I’ve always dreamed of playing with. Someone that sees the floor. Someone that is super unselfish.”

The Jokic to Gordon lob has become a staple of the Nuggets’ attack and late-game offense. And its near-100% success rate has helped vault Denver’s clutch offense into a new stratosphere.

The Nuggets are shooting 53.6% from the floor in clutch situations this season (when the score is within five points with five minutes or less remaining). That mark leads the NBA and is the third-best clutch FG% in NBA.com’s database that goes back to the 1996-97 season (behind Phoenix in 2021-22 and Cleveland in 2008-09). Three of the Nuggets’ five baskets in the clutch vs. the Celtics were Gordon dunks.

In the Nuggets’ March 3 win over the Lakers, Denver held a 121-114 lead with under one minute remaining but needed one more basket to seal an eighth-straight win over LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

So, the Nuggets dialed up their signature knockout blow.

Murray got the ball to Jokic, who was posting Austin Reaves up at the foul line. Jokic backed Reaves down and then pivoted towards the hoop. As soon as Rui Hachimura, Gordon’s defender on the play, left his man to offer Reaves help, Jokic lofted a perfect lob to Gordon who was wide open on the left side of the basket.

Jokic let out a scream. Gordon slapped the backboard and flexed.

Game over.

The Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll is still the crux of Denver’s late-game attack. It’s an unguardable action featuring a generational two-man game that no defense has found a solve for.

But that two-man action has evolved into a three-man operation this year. When the defense sells out to stop the Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll, Gordon is always there in his dunker spot, watching, waiting, and ready to jump.

“When you give him the ball, he’s going to dunk it,” Jokic said. “I just need to throw it up there and I know he’s going to get it most of the time.”

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