Rookie Christian Braun barely played against the Los Angeles Lakers but he’s been a crucial piece for the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals.
The star duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray led the headlines yesterday with their monster tandem performance. In Game 3, they became the first teammates to both post a 30-point triple-double in the same game.
But guess who finished third on the team in scoring during the Denver Nuggets’ 109-94 win over the Miami Heat? No, it wasn’t Michael Porter Jr. — the team’s third-leading scorer during the regular season and playoffs. It wasn’t Jokic’s best buddy Aaron Gordon. It wasn’t the man of a million teammates, Jeff Green.
It was none other than the last rookie standing in the 2023 Playoffs. It was Christian Braun.
In Game 3, Braun scored 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting in 19 minutes of action (also contributing a steal and assist during that time). But this wasn’t just some one-off occurrence. He also had a commendable Game 2 performance — 6 points, 3 assists, and 3 steals on 3-of-3 shooting in 15 minutes (posting a plus/minus of plus-8 during that time).
How is it that a player who saw only 20 minutes during the entire Western Conference Finals has been able to leave such a massive imprint on the game’s biggest stage? Let alone someone who is still just a rookie.
The Nuggets have been preparing Christian Braun for this all season
Braun is not the Nuggets’ version of Caleb Martin. He is not the uber-versatile do-everything two-way player that portends well in almost any postseason series. At this stage in the game, young Braun still doesn’t have a reliable jumper (he’s a 20 percent 3-point shooter this postseason) or on-ball creation game like Martin wields.
That’s why he ended up getting played off the floor in the series against the Los Angeles Lakers. He couldn’t create for himself or hit enough open shots to force the Lakers’ defense to respect him. And as a result, Los Angeles helped off him to slow down larger threats (much as they did with Aaron Gordon).
However, as we’ve discussed before, the value of the non-silver bullet role players (Martin would be considered a silver bullet role player) can vary drastically from series to series. So where Braun was harmful to the Nuggets against the Lakers. He’s proved to be immensely valuable to them against the Heat.
The Heat’s defense is predicated on disrupting the flow of their opponent and forcing them to either stagnant or commit turnovers. Their main tool for doing so — and a massive talking point over the last couple of days — is their patented shape-shifting zone defense.
In a nutshell, the philosophy behind the zone is that its layout is such a stark contrast to what offensive players are accustomed to seeing that it bogs down their decision-making and mucks up the rhythm of the offense. The key to “beating” the zone is to not let it throw you too far off your regular process.
That’s where Braun comes into play. Even at his amateur status, Braun is fearless and plays with a great deal of conviction. He doesn’t let his opponent’s untraditional coverage cloud his thoughts and throw him into a state of mental despair. No, instead, Braun attacks the open space that the weakside of the zone makes available to him. And on top of that, he’s an explosive vertical athlete too.
(Sidebar: To learn more about why Miami’s zone leaves them vulnerable to Braun’s cuts, check out this video from Mo Dahkil.)
Along with his cutting prowess (93rd percentile, per NBA.com), Braun also isn’t afraid to put the ball on the floor and attack downhill. Normally, a player of his shooting acumen wouldn’t garner the type of closeout that you can drive against. But due to the zone’s chaotic nature, the scrambling Heat have sometimes made the mistake of trying to run him off the line. And when they do, he runs them out of the gym.
Defense wins championships
Braun’s aggressive basketball nature extends out to his defense too. He’s an active off-ball defender who seeks to make the passing lanes his prey. In the last two games, he’s accumulated four steals in a combined 34 minutes of action — a couple of which were of the homerun play variety.
Defensive playmaking like this is incredibly valuable because whenever you can force another team to turn the ball over, you automatically diminish their chances of scoring on that possession to zero percent (you can’t score if the other team takes the ball from you, duh!).
Thanks to head coach Erik Spoelstra’s attention to detail, the Heat’s offense executes with a level of crispness that is almost militaristic. In the playoffs, they are tied for the third-lowest turnover percentage (12.3 percent) of any playoff team that was invited to the big dance. Meanwhile, the Nuggets struggle to turn people over — ranking dead last in the postseason in opponent turnover percentage (11.4 percent).
So, having Braun wreaking havoc for them is a huge boost in this regard. In the last two games, he’s been responsible for 26.7 percent of the Heat’s turnovers (four of 15).
The last thing to note about Braun is that you can’t mismatch-hunt him. He’s got great positional size and sound instincts. He may be inexperienced in terms of years on the job, but he’s spent the entire year shadowing some of the best in the business (like Anthony Edwards, Luka Doncic, Kevin Durant, and Devin Booker, to name a few).
Jimmy Butler’s version of the scouting report must have not included that nugget, as the reigning Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP winner has tried (and failed) to mismatch hunt the rookie. In the series, Butler has shot just 2-of-6 from the floor when he’s being guarded by Braun (per NBA.com).
Between Braun’s defensive tools and the Nuggets’ need for players who can attack this Heat zone without hesitation, this is a really good matchup for the rookie. But just because the climate of this series lends itself well to Braun’s skillset doesn’t mean we should downplay his performance.
After all, any rookie who can show up like he has in the NBA Finals is in for a pretty long and prosperous NBA career.
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