Aaron Gordon called it the best in-game dunk he’d ever had.
Jamal Murray deemed it the “dunk of the year.”
Outside of Gordon, Nikola Jokic had the best vantage point for the thunderous, soul-snatching jam over Landry Shamet late Sunday night against Phoenix.
“I was open,” Jokic deadpanned.
Up 124-123 with 24 seconds left, Gordon corralled his 12th rebound of the night and picked up steam on the opposite side of the floor. As Gordon angled towards the basket, he saw the two-on-one coming. A bounce pass to Jokic would have been enough, helping to pad his 41-point, 15-rebound, 15-assist triple-double. But Gordon, a savvier player now than he’s ever been, kept charging.
“You have to play that little cat-and-mouse game,” Gordon said.
As Gordon read the defender, he committed to his launch, regardless of bodily risk.
“‘All right, I’m just gonna take off,'” he said.
What he left in his wake was Shamet, who dropped to the floor, and a shell-shocked Suns team that couldn’t compete with Gordon’s raw athleticism. The soaring dunk, Gordon’s seventh of the night, elicited a roar from Ball Arena that rivaled the decibels of a playoff game.
“The roof just popped off,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
When the whistle blew, alleging a charge, Gordon knew it wouldn’t hold. He said he felt how Shamet’s body had impeded him and knew a review would yield an and-1. Murray’s mind flashed back to his ruthless dunk over DJ Wilson that had been whistled a foul several seasons ago.
“It wasn’t like I was just going right through him,” Gordon said. “I was going over and around.”
Rarely at a loss for words, Malone wasn’t sure how to describe the effect it had on his team.
“Damn,” he said. “I’m just glad they reviewed it.”
It was the crowning highlight of a performance full of them. That dunk, which helped seal the gripping 128-125 overtime win over the Suns, overshadowed a previous alley-oop, where Gordon rose like he was back in the dunk contest contending with the laws of gravity. In some photos captured of the moment, he almost was. And that was to say nothing of either of his two reverse alley-oop finishes.
In the wake of last year’s first-round playoff ouster to Golden State, Gordon made a public commitment to re-focus and raise his basketball IQ. According to Jokic, arguably the smartest player in the NBA right now, he has.
“He’s slowing down, to be honest,” Jokic said. “On the post, even when he needs to bully someone, he’s doing it a little slower. I like it much more. You can see, high-post, low-post, he’s reading the defense. Even when he’s ducking, he’s reading where the pass can come from.”
EVERY ANGLE OF AARON GORDON’S RIDICULOUS DUNK OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE 🎬🤯 pic.twitter.com/bFEzWMvRHD
— NBA (@NBA) December 26, 2022
Gordon finished the night with 28 points on 11-for-18 shooting and 13 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end. His defense was tenacious and physical, his offense was imposing and overpowering. On a night where Jokic authored another 40-point triple-double, and Murray morphed into a flamethrower in the fourth quarter, Gordon’s aerial acrobatics remained the indelible moment. The three combined for Denver’s fourth consecutive win and its seventh in the team’s last eight games.
As outlandish as that dunk was, no sequence better showcased his contributions than a vital block on DeAndre Ayton, followed by a hustle play to save the ball from going out of bounds, which yielded a timely reverse layup with 3:30 left in overtime. At every level of the game, Gordon was there.
It was an all-encompassing showing that encapsulated why Malone had floated his name earlier this week as a potential All-Star.
“He’s the soul of this team, if that makes any sense,” said Jokic, the two-time reigning MVP. There was nothing, Jokic said, that Gordon couldn’t do on the floor.
Last season, the Nuggets asked far too much of him, serving as Jokic’s primary sidekick while also accepting the top defensive assignments on a nightly basis. Now, not only does he have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown to handle smaller guards, he’s got a plethora of offensive options who can alleviate his playmaking burden.
All he needs to do is play within himself, which he’s done, expertly, so far this season.
“He did everything tonight,” Malone said.
Late Sunday night, as Gordon was in the middle of addressing reporters, Jokic walked into the postgame news conference and told him his time was up. Everything Gordon needed to say, about his dunk, his dominance, and Denver’s burgeoning championship potential, had already been said.