MIAMI -- At the six-minute mark of the first quarter during Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday, Aaron Gordon, after setting a screen and rolling to the middle of the paint, found himself with Caleb Martin switched onto him. No hesitation. Gordon turns, seals, takes an entry pass from Nikola Jokic and overpowers past Martin for the dunk.
Next possession. Gordon runs the floor and winds up crossmatching with the 6-foot-2 Gabe Vincent, who has no shot of keeping the 6-foot-8 Gordon out of the paint. Gordon waves teammate Michael Porter Jr. out of the corner. It's a clear out. One on one. Gordon powers through Vincent and finishes the basket plus the foul.
It was an early reminder that Gordon, who led Denver in its 108-95 victory with 27 points, still has go-to scorer chops when the matchup is friendly. But when it isn't, he doesn't have to force his own offense as he did during his days in Orlando.
Case in point: Gordon scores seven straight points in the third quarter with a tip-in off a Christian Braun miss, an acrobatic backward lob finish after the defense rotated to Jokic as a 3-point shooter at the top of the key, and a corner 3-pointer as the shot clock was expiring.
These are all the other ways Gordon can get his points in the Denver offense, as an opportunist, an athlete, an aggressive cutter with extraordinary feel for space and timing who has, at a perfect moment, shown the world the ideal version of himself alongside two elite playmakers in Jokic and Jamal Murray.
Jokic said Gordon "won us the game" while calling him "our best player on the floor," and he's not wrong. The Nuggets boasted a 131 offensive rating and a 95 defensive rating with Gordon on the floor. This does feel similar to what Martin did for the Heat in the conference finals when four of the nine voters said he was Miami's most valuable player, an award that narrowly -- and rightfully -- went to Jimmy Butler.
The best player isn't always the leading scorer. Jokic is the best player, forever and always. Even in Game 4 when he only had 23 points on 8-of-19 shooting, he's the guy the defense rotates to. And Murray was getting doubled 30 feet from the hoop as Miami devoted extra attention to getting the ball out of his hands, meaning that Gordon is the guy defenses leave. Or dare to shoot. Or lose track of on cuts. He feasts in the freedom of not being the best player.
"Aaron Gordon was huge all night long," Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters. "He brought his hard hat tonight, and was just a warrior for us on both ends. ... Aaron did it all for us tonight. He really did. We've seen that now in four games in the Finals, where Aaron has had moments where he has carried us offensively, he made 3s tonight which is obviously a good thing, but I couldn't be more proud of Aaron Gordon and his impact across the board tonight."
Jokic talked of Gordon's offensive sacrifice in his role with the Nuggets, but I wouldn't call it that. Sure, he was more of a featured player in Orlando, but he was out of his depth in that role; and it was clouding the way he was judged as a player. The role he's playing for the Nuggets isn't a sacrifice. It's a blessing.
"When it comes down to it, it's just wanting to be great for my teammates," Gordon said of his showing on Friday, which goes down as his career-best playoff scoring night. "I know my teammates need me, and [I'm] just doing it for my brothers."
Sometimes, in fact most times, a quote like this is a throwaway. It's just the right thing to say. But in this case, you believe every word of it. Gordon is playing in support of his teammates in every way possible, and anyone can tell he's getting extreme satisfaction from doing so.
It's been that way from the moment Gordon was traded to Denver. He and Jokic were on the same page immediately. The Nuggets looked like the best team in the league after that 2021 deal, only for Murray to tear his ACL right before the playoffs.
We conveniently forgot that as the Nuggets plowed their way through the last two seasons without multiple key players in Murray and Porter. This was a team that's been ready to pop, and it's largely because of the elements Gordon has added on both ends.
Before Gordon, the Nuggets were a good team. Jokic has been great for a while. We've seen Murray go on nuclear tears in the playoffs. But after Gordon is when this good team became great. Gordon is not the best player. He's the right player. And, sometimes, that can mean just as much.