Aaron Gordon finding how to make a difference without scoring

Aaron Gordon quickly became one of the most trusted players for Steve Clifford on the Orlando Magic roster. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Aaron Gordon quickly became one of the most trusted players for Steve Clifford on the Orlando Magic roster. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Aaron Gordon’s absence from the game was noticeable as the Golden State Warriors raced ahead. Gordon is making a big impact without scoring.

Kevin Durant sized up Jonathan Isaac as the time wound down and the Golden State Warriors up one point. He was at the top of the key and looking to get into his shot or drive to the basket. He had just drawn at the very best a questionable foul call on a drive to put the Warriors up and in control of the game by one point. Nikola Vucevic could not answer on the other end.

Jonathan Isaac has already staked a reputation as a strong defender. He makes a difference on that end. And Isaac was game against Durant. In one sequence in the third quarter, he was faceguarding Durant at the top of the key and poked the ball loose from Damian Jones just from his length alone. That keyed an 11-point third quarter for Isaac when he scored 15 points in the game.

But now he was on an island. On an island in more ways than one — playing more than 30 minutes for the first time in his career without a viable backup to help and Gordon out of the game.

Durant did what he does. He had the threat of the drive and Isaac probably had the confidence in his reach to contest. But Durant rose up and hit a three over Isaac to give the Warriors a four-point lead, essentially icing the game.

Magic fans likely have to ask themselves a bit what would have happened with Aaron Gordon in the game. Some tightness in his back kept him out for most of the second half. But to that point, Gordon was as strong as any player on the team.

In the first half, Durant scored 20 of his 49 points in the first half. But he made just 7 of 16 shots. The Magic made his shots difficult and challenged him at the rim. Durant had only four free throws at halftime.

A lot of that credit should go to his primary defender in Aaron Gordon. He was physical without fouling and challenged Durant’s shots to make his life that much more difficult. Durant got his points, but the flow of the Warriors’ smoothe offense got disrupted from Gordon acting as a roadblock.

The Magic built a 17-point halftime lead on that and the other defenders’ efforts, expanding it with a late second-quarter run to that point. In a hair less than 22 minutes Gordon was a +11 on the court. Granted, that was because he played so little of the second half.

But what might have been more impressive was Gordon made such a clear impact without scoring. He failed to make any of his six field goals. He grabbed only four rebounds. But his impact was undeniable.

Isaac was trying his best against Durant. He tried to crowd him and challenge shots. But Durant got into a rhythm and Isaac, playing 30 minutes for the first time in his career, ran out of gas. That likely led to him giving Durant maybe that half-inch extra of space Durant needed. Isaac certainly struggled to stand up physically to Durant despite their similarly slender frames.

While Isaac played one of the best games of his career — on both ends — he is still building strength and coming out of his minutes restriction. He is a gifted defender, but still learning the ins and outs of the NBA.

Durant certainly took advantage of that, drawing several fouls on Isaac through the fourth quarter as he put an onslaught on the team on his way to 49 points.

Gordon did not have that disadvantage. He was able to get into Durant and use his size and strength to keep Durant in front of him and challenge all his shots.

This is a common thread for Gordon throughout the season.

Entering Monday’s game, Gordon has accumulated 0.7 defensive win shares, the same amount as his rookie year. He has a 1.0 defensive box plus-minus. According to the NBA’s stats database, opponents are shooting 46.2 percent against him. The Magic have a 106.5 defensive rating with Gordon on the court, well below the team’s average.

All impressive marks considering he is defending the best player on the opposing team every night.

Defense is notoriously difficult to measure. So some of these can be somewhat mitigated by recognizing Gordon has played in the Magic’s best defensive lineups. It is not because of him. But it sure helps.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Coach Steve Clifford said before the season he hoped Aaron Gordon could crack the all-defensive team in the NBA. Gordon certainly has that talent and ability to reach those levels. He may yet get there with his strong defense.

And he has played to that level, gaining his coach’s trust. It is hard to take Gordon off the court for both his offensive and defensive contributions.

But the larger point coming out of this — and coming out from the rest of the season — is just how serious Gordon’s impact is outside of his scoring. The whole tenor for the Magic changed defensively after Gordon left the game Monday night. Orlando almost certainly could have used his presence and calmness to slow down the growing Warriors’ storm.

That was not the case last year.

Last year, Gordon would step up his defensive game against elite opponents. But he would often try to force his offense to match too. This would lead to him taking wild shots or overdribbling into mid-range jumpers.

Those poor habits are still present, but he has limited them, focusing on other parts of his game. His rebounding is generally up and improved. His shooting is more efficient and he is picking his spots to attack better.

And in a game where he did not make any shots, Gordon made his presence felt with his defense. He certainly did that in his absence.

It is still unclear whether Gordon will miss time with the back injury that knocked him out of Monday’s game. It was a major turning point in the game. As good as Nikola Vucevic has been on both ends, Aaron Gordon still represents a major part of the team’s puzzle.

An almost indispensable part. At least against the elite wings in the league.

This is is a major step for him and his growth. To make that impact even if he is not scoring. Even if his offense is taken away. Orlando clearly carried the load Gordon left them. The Magic did everything could to stem the tide against the Warriors.

Next. Grades: Golden State Warriors 116, Orlando Magic 110. dark

If Gordon were in there, perhaps things would have been different. It feels like Gordon would have made sure of that.