Pacers Nuggets Basketball

Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, right, is defended by Indiana Pacers guard T.J. McConnell during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

A smaller menu and simpler decision-making process is keeping Aaron Gordon well-fed this season.

One of Gordon’s trainers compared Gordon’s skillset to that of an expansive menu featuring multiple pages – think Cheesecake Factory. There’s plenty of variety but no real specialty. Instead of a little bit of everything, Gordon’s switched his focus to sustenance.

“You got to go to your bread and butter and your steak and potatoes. That’s going to be what gets it done for you,” Gordon said.

“Every once in a while, you can throw on some sides or desserts.”

Through 46 games, Gordon’s strong defense has been his steak and the ability to exploit mismatches is the potatoes. With many teams switching screens for every position but center, Gordon mix of size and skill presents problems.

“The thing about Aaron, I think, that’s so unique in today’s NBA is a lot of teams have small power forwards that, if you switch, that’s it. There’s nothing to be gained,” acting Nuggets coach David Adelman said after Friday’s win over the Pacers. “(With) Aaron, if you switch, you’re going to deal with him. He’s going to take you down there, and you’re either going to have to help, he’s going to score or he’s going to get fouled. That’s a major advantage to have in today’s NBA.”

Gordon’s decision-making process is dictated by whatever advantage presents itself. Gordon’s confident he can drive past bigger, more traditional post players. If a smaller defender ends up guarding Gordon, it’s time to put his chiseled 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame to use.

“They’re either too big and too slow or too small and I’m stronger than them,” Gordon said.

The 3-pointer has a decreased presence on Gordon’s refined menu. Just after the midway point of the season, Gordon’s averaging 2.5 attempts from deep per game. That’s the lowest mark since his sophomore season in 2015-16. Back then, he was a 29.6% shooter from deep. His 37.6% this season would go down as a career-best.

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“He’s simplified his game,” Adelman said prior to Friday’s game. “He’s too athletically gifted and skilled for it not to work out, but sometimes when you’re that gifted, you’re looking to be everything at once. I think he’s really found what he’s great at. He runs the floor as good as any four man in the league. He spaces the floor as good as any four man in the league. … I think the 3s he’s taking are good 3s. They’re rhythm 3s. They’re at the right times.”

That process continued to be productive against the Pacers. Gordon posted a team-high 28 points to go with six assists and five rebounds. He made 11 of his 15 shots, including 1 of 2 from deep, in 30 minutes of playing time. He scored his first bucket when Indiana’s 6-foot-4 shooting guard Buddy Hield got switched onto Gordon after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s screen. Gordon sized up Hield for a couple of dribbles before he started to back him down. Once Gordon got to where he wanted to go, he hit a short bank shot to score the game’s first points.

“When he’s one-on-one down there, they have to bring somebody or else he’s going to get fouled or go up,” Jamal Murray said after recording the first triple-double of his career. “That opens our perimeter up. He was just being aggressive.”

Gordon kept it going with a pull-up 3-pointer and a couple of dunks off two of Murray’s 14 assists on the night. When Pacers center Myles Turner played off Gordon early in the third quarter, the Nuggets forward used the open space to hit a jumper from the free throw line. He exploited another mismatch against Andrew Nembhard, Indiana’s rookie point guard, to score his 14th and 15th points early in the third. He finished his scoring by sealing a small defender and rolling toward the basket for one of Denver’s season-high 16 dunks on the night.

With the game in hand in the fourth quarter, Gordon went back to the menu for dessert. He initiated the offense for stretches and recorded four of his six assists in the fourth before the bench closed out Denver’s ninth straight victory.

“We want him on the attack. We want him in the paint. We want him at the rim, but you can’t tell a guy to do one thing all the time,” Adelman said. “So, I think he’s found the balance, and the simplification of that has led to, arguably, an All-Star season.”

Up next: The Nuggets conclude a five-game homestand Sunday. Altitude's broadcast of the game against Oklahoma City starts at 6 p.m.

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