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Denver Nuggets’ Aaron Gordon: ‘I’m not here for the credit. I’m here for the wins’

MVP candidate Nikola Jokic calls Gordon “our best defender.”

DENVER – As Aaron Gordon stood on the Ball Arena floor while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, he paused to take in the moment. He peered at the sold-out crowd, the flashing lights and the unique vibe he was experiencing for the first time. The Denver Nuggets forward has played in 596 regular-season games and 35 postseason games. But this was different.

This was Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals. And in the moment, the defensive specialist felt a Rocky Mountain High like never before.

“I did have a moment before the game where I was like, ‘Wow, this is really the NBA Finals right now,’” a smiling Gordon told Andscape after the Nuggets claimed Game 1 over the Miami Heat with a dominant 104-93 victory. “It’s crazy. During the anthem, I was like, ‘Wow, we’re really here.’ Heck yeah, I’ve been dreaming about this.

Once the first NBA Finals game in Nuggets history began, the magnitude of being in the Finals didn’t appear to have any weight on Gordon.

In fact, no player in Game 1 had a better start as Gordon scored 12 points on a game-high 6-of-8 shooting from the field and four rebounds in 12 minutes. All six field goals came on dunks. The eight-year NBA veteran’s 12 first quarter points were the most in any quarter of this postseason and tied for second-most in any quarter of his postseason career. More importantly, the Nuggets held a 29-20 lead at the end of the first quarter that never was relinquished.

“They were switching early on and I felt he was really big in terms of sitting down in front of the rim, scoring in the paint and finishing at the rim,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said.

Said Gordon: “I’m just taking what they’re giving me. That’s it.”

The Nuggets are known for their two superstars in MVP candidate Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. But Jokic calls Gordon “our best defender.”

Gordon has had the daunting challenge of guarding one of the NBA’s most notable scorers/superstars in each round of the postseason. It was Minnesota Timberwolves’ 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round. In the second round, it was perhaps the NBA’s most intimidating scorer in Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant. It was the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James in the Western Conference Finals. And in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, it was the Heat’s Jimmy Butler whose scoring willed this Cinderella eighth-seed to an opportunity at a title.

Butler has been the Eastern Conference’s greatest offensive force of these playoffs. He scored 56 points in Game 2 and averaged 37.6 in the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks. The NBA All-Star scored at least 24 or more in four of five games in the second round against the New York Knicks. Butler also earned Eastern Conference Finals Most Valuable Player honors after averaging 24.7 points against the then-reigning East champion Boston Celtics.

But with Gordon as his most common defender in Game 1 of the Finals, Butler was limited to 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting from the field and seven assists in 38 minutes of Game 1. It was Butler’s lowest-scoring performance since having 12 points against the Knicks on March 29. Butler only attempted two field goal attempts on the 34 half-court plays in which Gordon guarded him, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Butler said that he and the Heat, who shot two free throws in Game 1, have to be more aggressive in Game 2.

Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat dribbles against Aaron Gordon (50) of the Denver Nuggets during Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

“You just have to be alert at all times,” Gordon told Andscape. “You have to be aware of Jimmy at all times. He is dangerous all over the floor… I don’t know why I get all the big defensive assignments. I guess it’s the versatility. The want. I just want to help my team win. That’s all it truly is.”

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said that while Jokic is often viewed as “embodying Nuggets culture,” the same could be said for Gordon. Gordon has embraced his offensive role behind Jokic and Murray since being acquired by the Nuggets from the Orlando Magic on March 25, 2021. Malone said Gordon also had taken pride in doing the “dirty work” defensively and he rewarded him with the gaudy Defensive Player of the Game chain for the night.

“Aaron Gordon is a prime example of somebody who’s truly selfless,” Malone said after Game 1. “He understood with Jamal and Michael coming back this year being healthy that his role was going to change. He never once fought it. He’s embraced it from day one of the season and gone out there, whether it’s guarding Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and now obviously guarding a guy like Jimmy Butler. He does a lot of the dirty work for us, and a lot of times he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves.”

Said Jokic: “Just to play defense the whole game on the best player, I think that’s really hard to do.”

Gordon, 27, credits the best focus of his career for his success this season.

Gordon was strongly motivated after the Golden State Warriors eliminated the Nuggets in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs in five games sans Murray. He was disappointed with his performance after averaging 13.8 points on 42.6 percent shooting from the field and 7.2 rebounds. During the offseason, the San Jose, Calif., native stayed primarily in Denver to train in the 5280-foot altitude and would work out as many as three times per day.

Gordon’s brother and former NBA player Drew and sister and former Harvard University basketball star Elise noticed a difference in focus from their brother last offseason. Drew Gordon said his brother worked out with people that had a “different work ethic.” One NBA source said Aaron Gordon worked out in Denver with Murray, teammate Michael Porter, Jr., and even Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard last summer. Elise Gordon credited her younger brother’s focus on wanting to reach his dreams for himself, his family and the Nuggets and said he was a gym rat last offseason.

“The Nuggets have been progressing every year as a team and as a hole,” Drew Gordon told Andscape. “He took time to self-reflect, dig down deep and change the way he approached games and practices. It’s been paying off. You see the benefits of it.”

Said Elise Gordon to Andscape: “He was absolutely focused. He has been more locked in this season than he’s ever been. He has been declining to go out after games. He’s locked in. He wants to take care of his body mentally and physically. A lot of guys his age aren’t doing that. He’s stepping back to look at the bigger picture.

“These last two seasons, being with Denver has been the culture shift. He has a teammates, front office and just organization that motivates him to want to do better and be better. And he sees what they are able to achieve even before they got here. That is motivation to him.”

Playing in the Nuggets’ first NBA Finals game since the franchise joined the league in 1976 was quite memorable for Gordon. What will be much more memorable is winning the franchise’s first championship since being in existence for nearly 50 years, debuting in the American Basketball Association in 1974. While Jokic gets the most attention on the Nuggets and Murray is second, Gordon told Andscape that “everyone gets love when you win.”

And Gordon and the Nuggets are three wins away from the greatest basketball love of all—an NBA championship.

“I’m not here for the credit. I’m here for the wins,” Gordon said in the post-game presser. “Playing with guys like the guys that are on this team is just a blessing. It’s a beautiful opportunity to play with guys on the team that have so much talent, have so much skill and have so much passion for the game of basketball.

“That’s what I’ve always loved is to play the right way of basketball, and we do that here. I don’t care if I score 50 or 0, as long as I’m helping impact the game and we’re winning.”

Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone put the team’s Defensive Player of the Game chain around Aaron Gordon’s neck after their win in Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.

Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.