Aaron Gordon shows his promise in playoffs, but has much work to do

Aaron Gordon had his breakout offensive game in Game 4 and has played well this postseason. But it is clear he has a lot of work to do.

Last year against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Aaron Gordon let the league know he could be a force in the league.

He scored 40 points on 6-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc. He was weaving in and out of the Thunder’s vaunted defense and torching them. His newly discovered and reliable 3-point stroke opened up a new window to his game.

Aaron Gordon finished last year averaging 17.6 points per game with career highs across the board. It felt like Gordon was destined for stardom. If the team was going to take its next step it would be on Gordon’s back and on his upward trajectory.

This season did not quite go that way. He averaged a relatively quiet 16.0 points per game. He had no breakout games — nothing that would even merit a MyTeam Moments card on NBA 2K19. His season high in scoring was 31 points against the New York Knicks.

He hardly took a step back. He became a more efficient scorer and shooter. His assists jumped up by 1.4 assists per game to 3.7 per game. He flirted with triple-doubles on several occasions. And he became the team’s most reliable and trusted defender. Despite scoring fewer points, coach Steve Clifford played him more than any other player.

It was undoubtedly a step forward for Gordon. But he would take no bigger step forward than the challenge the playoffs would present. A matchup with Kawhi Leonard in a series where the Magic would need Aaron Gordon’s contribution on both ends.

A playoffs of learning

It has been a mixed bag like all things for the Magic. Leonard has dominated the series despite all of Gordon’s best efforts. And Gordon always was going to find it tough to score against Leonard and his monstrous defense.

“He definitely has the toughest matchup,” Nikola Vucevic said after Game 4. “I think all series he has been going at him and battling against him. He has done a great job. It’s not easy to defend a guy like Kawhi. He is a great player and great scorer. Tonight AG was great. He fought until the end. At one point, he was the only one giving us something offensively. Just battled. I think he has done it all series. We just have to do better as a team, I think.”

Gordon is averaging 16.3 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists per game. He is shooting 51.0 percent from the floor and 50.0 percent from beyond the arc in the series. All this on a 20.6 percent usage rate.

With Leonard on him, Gordon has looked to fit in the gaps of the offense. He has spotted up for three and hit some big shots for the team — particularly in Game 1 where his 3-pointer in the middle of the fourth quarter sparked the comeback and his assist to Jonathan Isaac on a ball reversal tied the game with less than a minute to play.

The numbers are a bit misleading. These are small sample sizes after all. Leonard has absolutely won the matchup with Gordon despite his best efforts. And Gordon has had little space to attack.

Offensively at least, Game 4 was a flicker of light for Gordon. A flicker of Gordon looking like the quasi-All-Star he showed last year. That scoring touch and aggression.

“Aaron played great,” Evan Fournier said of his 25-point Game 4 performance. “Outside of him making plays is how hard he fought tonight. That’s what we need from everybody. We’ve got to fight and give it all out. There is no other option now.”

Gordon has worked hard to limit his dribbling and get others involved. But in the third quarter of Sunday’s game, he started to attack more off the dribble. He scored 25 points, including 16 on a perfect 6 for 6 in the third quarter.

Gordon was lethally efficient, driving off the bounce to set up midrange jumpers. He finally got some transition opportunities for easy baskets. And he has done a good job on the rare chances he has had without Leonard on him bulldozing to the basket.

It was the level of aggression the Magic have wanted to see from him all year. There are times when he cannot merely fit in. This is one of those.

“I think Gordon was a problem tonight,” Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after Game 4. “He was doing a heck of a job I thought of scoring and getting to the basket. We were having a hard time keeping him in front or just controlling him. He was playing with a lot of force coming around those screens and using all his size and athleticism.”

Perhaps this was the kind of play the Magic have missed. Gordon has struggled at times to balance searching for his own scoring and keeping others involved throughout the season. He gets into trouble when he tries to force offense and he has had his share of bad games this series.

A tough assignment

It has been true in the playoffs too. Especially considering the task he has on defense and with his matchup.

Yes, his overall series numbers have been skewed by small sample sizes. He has had his struggles in this series offensively going up against Leonard.

And Leonard has asserted his will on this series. There is no escaping this. Leonard is averaging 28.0 points per game on a 58.9 percent effective field goal percentage.

According to NBA.com’s Player Tracking statistics, Leonard is scoring 16.8 points per game with a 56.3 percent effective field goal percentage with Gordon guarding him. In Game 3, Leonard struggled to score overall and went 0 for 9 with three of his six turnovers against Gordon.

Leonard is clearly winning that matchup, but Gordon has gotten his shots in. The plain fact is there is little the Magic can do to stop Leonard this series. Gordon has had to fight for any advantage he can find.

In Sunday’s Game 4, Gordon finally took control on offense and tried to be the star the Magic probably hoped he could turn into this season and still hope he can develop into.

“That [taking over a game] is never the thought process,” Gordon said. “Just being aggressive. My teammates did a great job finding me. They gave me the rock and I was just taking what the defense was giving me. I was a bit more aggressive and just playing my game.”

A new challenge

Game 5 will be another challenge. The Magic have their backs against the wall and have struggled to get anything going offensively.

As the team starts to look back at this series, it will see some positive signs of who they can be. If they only came in little pockets.

To win Game 5, Gordon is probably going to have to be willing to take on more of that offensive role to loosen things up for other players. His low usage rate in this series suggests he is not as involved in the offense as he could be.

Gordon’s big issue has been his matchup with Leonard. But he has also struggled in the post to take advantage of smaller defenders switching onto him.

He was already not a good post player — 0.84 points per possession and 42.0 percent shooting in the regular season. He is scoring 1.00 points per possession and is shooting 75.0 percent on post-ups in the playoffs. But he has a 33.3 percent turnover rate on post-ups.

This is a big part of his game he has to improve and the playoffs have exposed this weakness in his game.

This postseason has exposed a lot of the holes left in Gordon’s game. But he has continued to find ways to contribute.

More than any other player, no one can question his effort. He has done about all he can to slow down Leonard and make him work for everything in the half court. The numbers do not bear that out because of how good Leonard has played.

Gordon is a good defender but he knows how much better he has to be to check the elite players on this stage now. And he probably understands his offensive game still has to take some leaps as he finds his best place in the NBA.

He is 23 years old. Gordon has plenty of time to learn these things.

But for Game 5, the Magic will need Gordon to look like he did that night against the Thunder. They will need the player who took over the game in the third quarter and did all he could to keep the team afloat heading into the fourth quarter.

Gordon has shown a lot this postseason. But he has also shown how much work he has left to do.