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The Heat Have No Answer for the Aaron Gordon Problem

Miami held Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to a series-low 38 points combined, but Gordon more than picked up the slack, scoring inside and out, hounding Jimmy Butler, filling in ably for Jokic at the 5, and ultimately rendering every Heat strategy untenable

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Many of the best-laid plans for slowing down the Denver Nuggets get shredded to ribbons by Nikola Jokic or reduced to ash, courtesy of Jamal Murray. The schemes clever enough to withstand all that, and executed sharply enough to actually complicate the best tandem offense in the league, usually just get absolutely wrecked inside anyway—as Aaron Gordon preys on whatever compromises were made to wrangle Jokic and Murray in the first place.

Such was the case in Game 4, a commanding 108-95 win for the Nuggets defined by Gordon’s contributions: a playoff career-high 27 points (on 15 shots), seven rebounds, six assists, and a disposition to punish any defense the Heat tried to run. When Miami has tried to switch on screens in these NBA Finals, it’s been easy for Gordon to find a smaller opponent like Gabe Vincent and just mash him into the paint. If the Heat try to blitz Murray in an effort to rush his decision-making—as they did often in Game 4—the rest of the team is forced into rotation, making it easier for Gordon to find a smaller opponent like Caleb Martin and, well, just mash him into the paint. Even when the Heat have sprinted back to hurriedly set up their defense in transition and cut off the Nuggets’ access to some of the easiest possible points, they play so few guys even plausibly big or strong enough to handle Gordon that he often gets picked up by a smaller opponent like Kyle Lowry and he—once more, with feeling—just mashes him inside.

“That’s why we got him,” Murray said. “He’s a dog. 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.”

Gordon is living proof that basketball doesn’t have to be complicated. The NBA game unfolds with a speed and physicality that’s harrowing to see up close, but if you’re bigger and stronger and more athletic than almost anyone who guards you and have the skill to do something about it, go straight to the basket, over and over, until the defense proves it can stop you. Miami can’t. So Gordon put up more points in Game 4 than any of Jokic and Murray’s teammates have in any other game of these playoffs to date.

That scoring will always be an outgrowth of the primary offense; Gordon wouldn’t have gotten clean catches inside if not for Jokic hitting enough 3s (including a bombs-away look from Steph Curry range) to pull Bam Adebayo out to the perimeter, or without Murray drawing so much attention as to pull the entire Heat defense off its axis. There is ample opportunity for Gordon, who slots in as a third or fourth option much of the time, to eat just by making himself available. “That’s just how this team is built,” Gordon says. “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.”

Gordon’s teammates will often reference the fact that he gave up life as a primary option to be here—that he had the ball in his hands in Orlando but was willing to give it away to be a part of what Denver was building. And they reference that path because, in a way, Gordon is Nuggets basketball. He doesn’t try to be what he’s not. He’s unselfish but uncompromising. Very obviously talented, but willing to streamline his approach. The five members of any lineup can fit together only if they allow themselves to, and Gordon—no matter who is on the floor with him or what his responsibilities might be—modulates his game perfectly.

“I think if you sacrifice yourself for something bigger than yourself—the team, or whatever—he sacrifices himself, and that’s why I think the one upstairs gave him the game today that he had,” Jokic said with a nod to the ceiling, and the basketball gods. “He won us the game. He was our best player on the floor.”

Jokic and Murray make Gordon’s role simpler, but showings like this from Gordon make their lives demonstrably easier. When the Heat started trapping Murray out of the pick-and-roll, Jokic pulled Gordon aside and suggested that he make himself available out on the perimeter to work as a pressure release. “He told me: ‘Just don’t leave him stranded. Flash when he gets blitzed,’” Gordon said. Murray wouldn’t have finished this game with 12 assists and zero turnovers if not for Gordon making himself available, facilitating the possessions that Murray (who had one of the best passing games of his career) couldn’t see all the way through.

“It’s awesome to play with these guys,” Gordon said. “These guys are so unselfish. They’re so passionate about basketball, and they understand that you’ve got to keep energy in the ball—and if you play the right way, everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.”

Gordon is a limiting factor for the Heat. Jimmy Butler can’t quite get going with Gordon hounding him as he has all series—and as he did Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Karl-Anthony Towns in previous rounds. He facilitates so well that it’s become completely counterproductive for Miami to trap. He pulverizes mismatches in a way that renders entire switching schemes untenable. If you help off of Gordon, as Heat defenders tried to Friday night, he can respond with a 3-for-4 night from beyond the arc that turns the give-and-take of the defense against it.

There’s something deflating about the way that Murray can shake just loose enough late in the shot clock to take—and sink—a tough, contested jumper. Yet when Gordon is this intuitive and this dominant, he forces an opponent to rethink what strategies are even possible. Miami didn’t run a single possession of zone in Game 4 after relying on it for significant stretches in the first three games of the series. And nothing the Heat did try seemed to work; they held Jokic and Murray to a series-low 38 points combined, but Denver still had enough counters layered into its half-court offense through Gordon, Bruce Brown, and Michael Porter Jr. to play a wildly efficient game.

“For the most part, I thought that [the coverage on Jokic and Murray] was OK,” Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s the Gordon dunks or cuts; Porter had a couple cuts; and then Brown, when Jokic was out, those drives and plays that were kind of just random plays, attacking plays, which he is fully capable of doing. Those were probably the most costly things.”

Miami even tried to tweak its playing rotation to have both Butler and Adebayo on the floor in the second quarter when Jokic rested. Gordon played small-ball center, still spent time guarding Butler, and scored the majority of the Nuggets’ points during that run as they played the Heat’s star-buoyed lineup to a standstill. Adebayo managed to sell a fifth foul on Jokic with almost nine and a half minutes left to play, sending the superstar center to the bench with the game still up for grabs. Gordon subbed in for a teammate he could never really replace, and he got stops, led the break, and ran his own version of a two-man game with Murray. Miami couldn’t really manage to make up any ground at all after removing Jokic from the game with foul trouble, effectively shutting the door on Game 4 and likely the title with it.

Denver has lost only a single game in the last calendar month precisely because of players like Gordon. There’s no way to pin down a team that, when facing some creative coverage, can rampage through mismatches for layups and dunks. Murray got blitzed throughout Game 4. Jokic played his fewest minutes in any game this series, due to the aforementioned foul trouble. Both stars appeared to turn an ankle over the course of the game. Yet the Nuggets ran a clean offense and finished, remarkably, with only six turnovers in total, a mark Adebayo surpassed all on his own. The most bruising team in this championship series is also its most deft. Which is why Gordon has turned out to be the perfect counterweight—well-rounded enough to be the punishing consequence for every adjustment.