In the final play of the Western Conference finals, Aaron Gordon had the biggest defensive stop of his career. All series long Gordon was the primary defender on LeBron James, posing the toughest defensive matchup for the Los Angeles Lakers superstar throughout these playoffs. With the Nuggets holding a slim 113-111 lead, and the Lakers having the ball with four seconds left, Gordon needed to get one final stop to send Denver to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. No pressure or anything.
As the Lakers began to inbound the ball, James came around a screen with Gordon just a half step behind him. The former No. 4 overall pick was on LeBron's hip as he caught the inbound pass, but managed to position himself in a way that cut off an easy drive to the rim. Gordon, using his strength, athleticism and defensive IQ guided James straight into the help defense where Jamal Murray aided just enough to get a hand on he ball as LeBron tried to put a shot up. The ball came loose and as James tried to corral it again time expired. The Nuggets advanced to the NBA Finals.
That defensive stop from Gordon is exactly what the Nuggets expected to get when the team acquired him at the 2021 trade deadline. In a way, Gordon's performance over the course of these playoffs has been one big return on investment from that deal. Through the first three rounds this postseason, Gordon has had to guard Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, a tough defensive gauntlet for any elite defender, and yet Gordon excelled in each round.
Aaron Gordon's defense
|Player||FG% when guarded by Gordon||3P% when guard by Gordon||Assists||Turnovers||Blocks|
Against Towns, Gordon used his strength to make up for his size disadvantage against Minnesota's star, who shot just 37% from the floor and turned the ball over nine times with the Denver forward on him. Gordon's defense in the second round against Durant is some of the best defense we've seen on the 7-foot elite scorer. It's rare to see Durant struggle so much to get off a clean look, but Gordon made life miserable for one of, if not the best scorer in the league. Several times in that series we saw Gordon strip the ball from Durant mid-shooting motion, something that just never happens. Durant shot 38.2% from the floor and committed 12 turnovers while guarded by Gordon.
James had the most success scoring against Gordon, but that doesn't mean it was easy for the league's all-time leading scorer. Gordon matched up so well physically and athletically against James, and at times it forced him to become a facilitator rather than focusing on getting a bucket. And as we saw in that four-game sweep in the West finals, the Lakers couldn't get enough consistent help next to James in order to beat the Nuggets.
Gordon's proven throughout this playoff run that he was more than worth giving up Gary Harris, RJ Hampton and a protected 2025 first-round pick to get him. And the four-year, $92 million contract extension he signed in the summer of 2021 is looking like a total bargain right now for Denver. This version of Gordon, where he can guard multiple defenders at a high level, use his freakish athleticism and strength to finish off dunks and casually get you between 15-20 points a game is what the Orlando Magic likely envisioned he would become when they took him with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Fortunately for the Nuggets, they're getting that version of him right now without all the extra steps of developing a young player. As Denver prepares for the NBA Finals against the Heat, Gordon will once again be tasked with guarding another elite offensive weapon in Jimmy Butler, but if the first three rounds of the postseason are any indication, he should be perfectly suited for that role.