A fun exercise, right after the trade deadline, is circling the calendar for Revenge Games. These are the games wherein a player, now representing a new employer, faces his ex-employer. The special thing about these games is that it’s a great opportunity for players who were traded to flex their new work habits to their old work friends.
Another special thing about these games is that no one will admit they exist. For players who were dealt, this is “just another game.” On Monday, Aaron Gordon had to try to hide it.
“I haven’t gotten the sense from Aaron that he’s hyped up more because it’s Orlando than he was for Atlanta or Philly or the Clippers. I don’t get the sense that he’s that type of guy,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said pregame.
Gordon spent the first seven years of his NBA career with the Orlando Magic before being shipped to the Denver Nuggets. His days in Orlando hadn’t been fruitful, save for countless highlights that showcase his athleticism and jumping ability. His final days as a Magic ended with a trade request that was retracted, but still happened.
After all that, Gordon came into the Revenge Game riding a wave of good vibes. His new team was on a three-game winning streak. His chemistry with his new team’s MVP frontrunner, Nikola Jokic, is being praised. With but a small sample size, he’s already being deemed a perfect fit.
Against his former team, Gordon looked like he was out to prove it. He scored the Nuggets’ first basket, a left-handed hook assisted by Jokic. Then he hit an open baseline 3. Then he led a 3-on-3 fastbreak and scored on his own. Then he scored on a two-handed slam. Then he scored on an old-fashioned 3-point play off a Jokic give-and-go. In the first five minutes of play, Gordon scored all of the Nuggets’ points, and in the process outscored the entire Magic, 12-9. Sure, it was just another game.
The Nuggets, generally speaking, are in a good place in the timeline of the franchise. They’ve just come off a Western Conference finals loss against the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers. Their franchise star is a 6’11” point guard with the talent of a 6’3” center, which totally doesn’t make sense because Jokic more often than not doesn’t make sense. He might just win MVP. Their actual starting point guard, Jamal Murray, is an explosive scorer who can go off at the slightest trigger. They have a budding third option in Michael Porter Jr.
To start the season, however, the Nuggets were a subpar team. Collectively, they looked less a worthy WCF opponent and more a team nursing a nasty hangover. But then they were able to put together a string of good games and climbed back up to at least top four in the West.
This makes the Gordon addition all the more dangerous. Slotting into the role vacated by Jerami Grant, Gordon fits well because he allows everyone else on the roster to fit into their own specific roles. Will Barton can now breathe on defense and play at his natural two spot while Porter Jr. can now operate against defenses that have to keep an eye on Gordon. Denver can now field a super starting five that is efficient on both ends of the floor. It’s only a matter of time when they’ll have their own nickname.
In the first three games post-trade deadline, the starting lineup of Jokic, Murray, Barton, Porter Jr., and Gordon have outscored opponents by 48 points when they’re on the floor. Against competitive teams such as the Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, and LA Clippers, Denver won by a combined 40 points.
To start the game versus Orlando, however, they reverted to the sluggish Denver team in December. Apart from Gordon’s first quarter outburst to get things off his chest, the Nuggets couldn’t get anything going. They found themselves down 18 points at the end of the first half. But then as soon as the third quarter began, they flipped the switch, outscoring the Magic 38-21.
By the time it was over, Jokic had an unfathomable 16 assists and was a rebound shy of yet another triple-double. All five Nuggets starters finished in double figures, including Gordon, of course, who dropped 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting. It was his best game yet as a Denver Nugget.
There were many times in that game wherein all Gordon had to do was run to the basket and Jokic would throw him the perfectly timed pass. There were other times when Gordon just had to stand in the corner, command attention, and watch his teammates get open looks.
After the game, Malone described Gordon as “a gamer” who’s going to show up every night.
“We're 4-0 since the trade went down and you can see Aaron has been phenomenal all four games. You just kind of see him getting more and more comfortable as he's learning to play with, and off, of his teammates,” Malone said.
If the Nuggets keep this up, they may find themselves with a 5-0 record since the Gordon trade. In a way, that would seem poetic for Gordon because that’s the number on the back of his jersey, and also the title of his documentary, and also the reminder of his dunk contest scores that somehow weren’t enough to give him a trophy.
If the Nuggets keep this up longer, they may very well find themselves back in the Western Conference finals. They’ll be wielding a new shiny, athletic weapon, and whether they admit it or not, they will all be out for revenge.