Timberwolves

Will Aaron Gordon Turn Into Kobe Bryant Again In Game 5?

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

A reporter asks Rudy Gobert about Aaron Gordon‘s remarkable performance after the Denver Nuggets lost 115-107 in Game 4. “If [Aaron] Gordon turns into Kobe Bryant for stretches, we got to be living with that.” Gobert continues, “Those shots were contested, highly-contested some of them. This is part of the game.”

Gordon scored 27 points on 11 of 12 shooting in Denver’s effort to even the series at 2-2. As Gobert alluded to, the Timberwolves heavily contested some of those shots. However, some of them resulted from Minnesota’s game plan. The Wolves gambled that the likelihood of Gordon shooting well is less than the odds that Jamal Murray or Nikola Jokic would pick them apart.

Gordon is a career 32.3% three-point shooter but shot a less-than-stellar 29.0% in the 2023-24 regular season on just 1.9 attempts per game. To stress the abnormality of Gordon going full Kobe Bryant mode, he was only 1 of 10 from distance in Denver’s five-game Round 1 series win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

That leads to Minnesota’s current predicament. In Games 2 and 3, Gordon has shot 6 of 9 (66.7%) combined from three. That’s over double his regular season average in attempts per game and percentage of makes. The Wolves’ strategy heading into the series and Game 4 was to allow a combination of Naz Reid and Karl-Anthony Towns to guard Denver’s three-time MVP, Jokic, allowing Minnesota’s four-time DPOY Gobert to sag off Gordon and help on Jokic or a player driving into the paint.

The plan through the first game worked flawlessly, largely because Gordon shot 1 of 3 from deep. However, Gordon went 3 of 5 from three in Minnesota’s Game 2 blowout win. That confidence carried over to Game 3, where Gordon went 3 of 4 in a Wolves loss. We can assume that the Nuggets adapted to Minnesota’s defense and let Gordon fire away from three, allowing him to drive more frequently in the space Gobert gives him.

Game 4 appeared to be no different. Gordon’s first hit from distance came only 2:43 into the game. Gordon caught a pass from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and drilled the jumper to make the score 9-7 Wolves. Minnesota jumped out to a 20-13 lead before Gordon broke free again for an easy layup and cut the lead to 5.

Two minutes later, Mike Conley fouled Gordon, and Gordon hit a Kobe-esque contested floater to tie the game 22-22. Then he hit the free throw to put the Nuggets up one. Gordon finished the first quarter with a Denver-high eight points, capitalizing on Minnesota’s decision to leave him alone. Gordon found success shooting and driving, finishing the quarter a perfect 4 for 4.

The second quarter began with the Wolves down 29-24. Two minutes in, Gordon drove and converted a contested layup to put the Nuggets up 39-26 with ten minutes left in the quarter. Michael Malone subbed Gordon out, and the Wolves traded baskets with Denver. After an Edwards layup, the score was 50-39 Nuggets when the Nuggets subbed Gordon back in at 5:07.

After another beautiful layup by Edwards, Minnesota’s Gordon problem re-emerged. On the next possession, Gordon got an easy dunk off a cut to keep the lead 52-41. With just under two minutes left, Gordon got a putback dunk to grow the lead to 56-44. The Wolves went on a five-point run before their calamitous end to the half. The Nuggets scored eight points in only 20 seconds, including a Jamal Murray half-court heave.

The Wolves trailed 64-49 at the half.

Gordon entered halftime with 16 points, a full 2.1 points higher than the 13.9 points per game he averaged through the regular season. More importantly, Gordon did that while shooting 7 of 7 from the field, including a three. Gordon exploited Minnesota’s game plan in the first half. He continued his Bryant impression in the second half, scoring on a contested step-back jump shot and another three-point bomb off Caldwell-Pope’s assist. Gordon had a putback dunk a minute later that made him 9 for 9 from the field. He had 22 points with 8:07 to go in the third and the Nuggets leading 78-63.

The third quarter ended with the Wolves down 90-79. Below is a Gordon fade-away jumper that Bryant would be proud of, making Gordon 10 for 10. At the 3:13 mark, Gordon back-cut for an easy dunk, which sealed the game for Denver.

Gordon eventually missed a shot but finished 11 of 12 for 27 points, going 2 of 2 from deep and 3 of 3 from the free-throw line. Gordon fell two points shy of his playoff career-high 29 points and left the Wolves with a tough question to answer.

How sustainable is the strategy of leaving Gordon open to roam and shoot?

Or, to put it another way, how sustainable is Gordon’s shooting?

Minnesota is in a predicament. If they play Gobert on Jokic and have Towns play closer to Gordon, they risk Jokic picking apart the less agile Gobert. If the Wolves tell Gobert to play closer on Gordon and keep Towns on Jokic, they risk Gordon back-cutting on Gobert for easy dunks and layups, as he did this game after Gobert applied pressure. The Wolves could also task Edwards or Jaden McDaniels to guard Gordon. However, that may be a poor use of two all-defense caliber players.

Ultimately, the solution may be to stay the course and play the percentages. To reiterate, Gordon shot 29.0% from three over 23 games this season. Gordon’s hot shooting of 8 for 11 from three is unlikely to continue. However, if Gordon is going to score 27 points, the Wolves will likely lose the game.

After the game, Christ Finch didn’t call Aaron Gordon’s performance an ode to Kobe Bryant. However, he acknowledged, “We gotta go back to guarding him a little more honestly.” He suggested that maybe the Wolves will have a change in philosophy on Tuesday in Denver for Game 5.

Anthony Edwards might have had the perfect comment as he left the podium to sum up the game. “[I’m] sick of Aaron Gordon.”

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