FOX Sports NBA Analyst
Aaron Gordon didn’t have the most points, rebounds or assists, but he could have made more plays that turned into history for the Denver Nuggets on Monday night.
The Nuggets are headed to their first NBA Finals after completing the franchise’s first playoff sweep, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers, 113-111, in crypto.com arena
Fittingly, it was Gordon blocking LeBron James’ shot at the buzzer that sealed the win. Gordon had a pair of blocked shots with 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. It wasn’t what he did, though, so much as when. And maybe from where. He entered the game 0-for-6 from 3-point range, but nailed 3-for-5 from deep, the Nuggets’ most efficient 3-point shooter on the night. With the score tied at 83, he tipped a rebound away from Anthony Davis, charged down the floor and fed Michael Porter Jr. for a transition 3 with 3:34 left in the third quarter.
The Lakers managed to tie the score on several occasions down the stretch, but the Nuggets never trailed again. Gordon’s dunk while being fouled at 3:34 of the fourth quarter gave Denver a two-possession lead, 107-102.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham made the stops. He replaced D’Angelo Russell with Dennis Schroder in the starting lineup and even gave big man Tristan Thompson his first minutes in the series. At first it looked like it would be enough to force the series back to Denver for a fifth game.
James led the way with 31 points in the first half, including 21 in the first quarter, but the Lakers as a whole had their best offensive half of the series, scoring 72 points on 56 percent shooting overall, including 7 from 11 3-pointers and 16 of 17 free throws.
“He came out with a mindset to keep this going,” Ham said.
That was good enough for a 15-point halftime lead. The problem: It didn’t seem sustainable. Not for a team that entered the game shooting 34 percent in the series from long range and not for a 38-year-old James, who played all but four seconds. In the first half it was on a cut that a lob intended for Rui Hachimura ended up in the basket for his first triple. But he was 0-for-3 from long range in the second half and missed five of his final six shots, subject to three fourth-quarter points.
“He had an incredible game,” said Nikola Jokic, selected the MVP of the series. “We couldn’t stop him in the first half. We found a way to make him take a little harder shots after that.”
It wasn’t that the Nuggets’ two stars, Jokic and Jamal Murray, weren’t good, but by their standards in this series, they aren’t great. Jokic notched his ninth all-time triple-double (30 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists) and drove to the rim through Davis and Schroder for the game-winning basket with 51.7 seconds left, but he shot less than 50% and struggled defensively.
Gordon, with James as his main task, took his lumps in the first half, literally at one point James shoved his forearm into Gordon’s throat after a brief scuffle, resulting in both they received a technical foul, but eventually saw their efforts pay off.
No more so than on the last play, which sent the Lakers home and the Nuggets to their first Finals.
Statistics to know: The Nuggets committed six turnovers in the first half, one more than in all of Game 3, but had just two more in the second half. The Lakers were the better shooting team, but the Nuggets hit the shots that mattered and finished with nine blocked shots.
Game Play: With 2:50 left, the shot clock about to expire and the Nuggets clinging to a 107-104 lead, Jokic hit a stepback 3 from one foot, the ball barely clearing the Davis’ outstretched fingertips. It was such an unusual shot that it was initially considered a double.
Game Quote: Jokic, speaking of the team’s comeback from a 15-point halftime deficit, said: “We don’t give up. I’ve been saying that the last five years, when we’ve been bad or good. I think it’s a team effort. school. It’s not just a boy.”
What’s next for the Lakers: Figure out which of their large pool of free agents they want to retain and can keep, likely starting with rising star Austin Reaves.
What’s next for the Nuggets: Wait if the Miami Heat can match them and sweep the Boston Celtics.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young-onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds”. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @Rick Bucher.
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