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Aaron Gordon Got Up

Aaron Gordon dunks on Landry Shamet.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

If you belong the camp that believes the NBA season only "began" yesterday, then I don't understand why you deprived yourself of 10 weeks of light and joy, but I also wouldn't have have faulted you for napping through the afternoon and evening. Sixers-Knicks made for a good appetizer, but the middle three games of the Christmas slate were duds in terms of of late-game competitive urgency. The last bookend was good fun though, as the Nuggets slew the Suns in overtime, 128-125, behind a 41-15-15 Nikola Jokic classic and a stellar performance from Aaron Gordon.

Gordon put up 28 points (on 11-of-18 shooting) and 13 boards. His outing will be remembered most of all for this game-clinching dunk, which you are encouraged to review as forensically as you see fit.

Leading by one point with 30 seconds left in overtime, Gordon forced his way coast-to-coast. He'd already had five dunks on the night, and this time, as he compressed the springs, he drew in two Suns defenders, opening up a simple dump-off pass to Jokic if he wanted it. But what he wanted instead was to put poor Landry Shamet through the floorboards. The call on the floor was a charge. Upon review it was changed to a blocking foul—the holiday's sole basketball miracle—and Gordon was awarded a free throw.

Aaron Gordon has established himself as the second-best player on a 21-11 Nuggets team that now leads the Western Conference, even as on-paper co-stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. still seek their sea legs after injuries. There's a huge collective relief, an uncoiling of tension, when a promising young player lands in a more forgiving context, a team that collapses the gap between what he can actually do and what he is asked to do. The Magic spent six-and-a-half years trying to transmute Gordon into a three-shooting pick-and-roll operator, standing astride four other guys who stood 6-foot-9. His talent shone through in patches, but it wasn't a terribly flattering angle from which to consider the man overall. He's not a one-stop-shop defense like Draymond Green; he's not an every-possession offensive hub like LeBron James. Gordon enjoys top-shelf athleticism and a respectable list of two-way skills—a little wing defense, a lot of dunking, some rim protection, some straight-line driving—but he needed to find a place where he wouldn't be overtaxed.

That March 2021 trade to Denver was all he needed. He was no longer miscast as a first option. Here, Nikola Jokic starts sentences and Aaron Gordon finishes them. One man alchemizes open layups and dunks that should not exist, and the other man ensures that these gifts are not squandered. This offensive role has streamlined Gordon's life and cleaned up his shot diet; the unsurprising result is 67 percent true shooting, a career-best by a considerable margin. It wasn't always this simple. Back in '17–'18, threes accounted for 40 percent of Gordon's field goal attempts. This season, they comprise just 24 percent, and he's shooting a career-best 39 percent on the threes he does take. Gordon has fully evacuated the midrange and redoubled his efforts at the rim: This season, 54 percent of his shots are within three feet of the hoop, and he's finishing 80 percent of them, both career highs. He shows up to work no longer worrying about blowing by his defender and making something happen. Now it's all about sprinting into an empty pocket of space, confident that the ball will be flicked there by a slow-footed and red-faced man, and then jamming that ball through the hoop as hard as he can. It's a pretty sweet job description.

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