Aaron Gordon showed us how a non-shooter can stay on the floor

May 22, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) shoots a three point basket against Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) during the third quarter in game four of the Western Conference Finals for the 2023 NBA playoffs at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
May 22, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) shoots a three point basket against Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) during the third quarter in game four of the Western Conference Finals for the 2023 NBA playoffs at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

Non-shooters have been played off the floor in numerous matchups this postseason. Aaron Gordon just showed us how to survive and thrive.

One of the major trends of the 2023 NBA Playoffs involves defenses sagging off of poor outside shooters in order to provide additional help in the paint. The logic behind this strategy is fairly simple. The paint represents the highest value area on the floor, so it makes sense to disregard players on the perimeter who theoretically can’t burn you from out there to safeguard this space.

As we discussed before, this tactic became a central theme of the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks first-round clash. There, the Knicks were able to gallop to victory in large part because they were able to protect the paint by helping off the likes of Isaac Okoro and Evan Mobley.

This isn’t the only series in which we saw this defensive adjustment. And in many of these instances, the player who was being ignored by the defense was sentenced to the bench.

This looked like it was going to be the case for Aaron Gordon during these conference finals. Last week, we highlighted the Los Angeles Lakers’ use of the man-spy technique to contain two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. Part of the reason this technique worked so well is that Anthony Davis was able to help off of Gordon and roam around the paint.

Gordon looked absolutely flustered by the Lakers’ complete disregard of his presence. Through three games, he averaged just 9.7 points per game on a 51.3 true shooting percentage — a far cry from his regular season outputs of 16.3 points per game on a 61.7 true shooting percentage. The situation became so untenable that Gordon was benched in favor of Jeff Green for the entirety of the fourth quarter in Game 3.

However, Gordon responded with his best game of the series during Denver’s Game 4 closeout victory, posting 22 points, six rebounds, and five assists on a 71.8 true shooting percentage And in the process, he provided the model for how a non-shooter can manage to stay on the floor in the playoffs. Here’s how he did it.

Aaron Gordon is overcoming the mental hurdle

One of the things we tend to overlook as analysts/fans of the game is the human element of sports. At the end of the day, the game of basketball is played by human beings. Think about how weird/uncomfortable you would feel if you were having a conversation with someone and they just completely ignored you while you were speaking.

That is kind of what it feels like when a defense is purposefully helping off of you. When a defense ignores you, it completely throws off your entire rhythm. Just like you engage someone in conversation with the expectation that they will respond, you play the game of basketball with the expectation that you will be defended.

In these situations, the onus falls on the non-shooter to overcome this mental obstacle. Former player/coach and current broadcaster Mark Jackson always talks about how a player needs to keep shooting in order to maintain the offense’s flow. If they miss enough shots where it becomes detrimental, the coach will remove them from the game. But the player needs to let the coach be the one to do that. They can’t do it to themselves by mentally checking out.

In Game 4, Gordon heeded Jackson’s advice. When the Lakers gave him room to shoot, he did just that. And because of his audacity, he was rewarded by the basketball gods with some made baskets.

Now, it goes without saying that those uncontested shots won’t always fall (I mean, why else would they be considered non-shooters in the first place?), so you need to make sure you are leaving your imprint on offense in other ways too…

Aaron Gordon shows there is more to basketball than just shooting

News flash: basketball isn’t all about chucking a Spalding ball through a cylinder. There is a lot more you can do to force a defense to feel you.

One way of doing this is by placing the ball in the non-shooters hands and letting them facilitate the offense. This serves two functions: 1) it disrupts the defense’s help strategy, and 2) it keeps the non-shooter engaged.

In this next clip, Gordon is orchestrating the offense, which keeps Davis outside of the paint. This proves detrimental for Los Angeles as Gordon is able to flow into a snug pick-and-roll with Jokic. Jokic gets the inside angle on the roll against Davis, and finishes at the rim with little resistance (because Davis isn’t there to protect the paint).

Another tool in the non-shooters bag is cutting. Typically, when a defender is helping off of you, they often have their back turned to you. This provides the non-shooter with a window to slip past them for laydown passes and offensive rebounding opportunities. Gordon is an adept cutter (86th percentile during the regular season, per NBA.com), and during Game 4, he made sure to live up to his reputation.

We saved this next clip for last because it combines the two concepts we just touched on (on-ball usage and cutting). Here, Gordon brings the ball up, throws the post-entry pass to Jokic, notices Davis is helping off of him, feigns like he’s spacing at the free-throw line, and immediately jets to the rim for the lob dunk.

The common denominator in all these counters is aggressiveness. Unlike much of the first three games, Gordon played Game 4 with an exceptional level of aggressiveness. He wasn’t going to simply be ignored and played off the court by the Lakers. He was going to fight to make his presence known. As a result, he was able to go from playing zero minutes in the fourth quarter of Game 3 to eight in the final frame of Game 4.

With that said, Gordon isn’t out of the woods yet. The NBA is a copycat league, and his next opponent (likely the Miami Heat) is going to review the tape from this series and try and see if they can’t gain a competitive advantage by helping off of Gordon. From there, it will be up to Gordon to continue to execute the way he did in Game 4.

But the good news is he’s already proven to himself — and his team — that he’s ready to do what is necessary to stay on the floor.

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