Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon is known for his dunks. They were all on display in the win over the Los Angeles Lakers as Gordon started to soar again.
He quickly jumped onto the scene as an elite dunker and one of the most exciting young players in the NBA. His athleticism dazzled and fans still buzz about him. That is ultimately how Aaron Gordon is still defined — a bundle of athleticism ready to burst out. Magic highlights are a parade of Gordon’s athletic feats, flying above the rim.
But since then, Gordon has been working on his overall game, improving his handle, jump shot and awareness on both ends of the court.
Gordon has improved in those aspects, but his best attributes are still his strength and athleticism. When they come out, they are breathtaking, eliciting oohs and aahs from the crowd. This is what they came to see when Gordon takes the floor.
Gordon delivered against the Los Angeles Lakers as the undermanned team won 119-118 at Staples Center on Wednesday.
He did so with the high-flying dunks he is famous for. But also something more.
With the Magic up by one and 1:18 remaining in the game, Gordon exploded down the lane, absorbed contact and finished with tomahawk slam. Gordon reached the “launchpad” as he described it after the game. And there is no stopping him when he lifts off.
JaVale McGee could only extend both hands and try to shove Aaron Gordon in mid-air to try to stop him. That is a mistake, Gordon can finish even without contact with the rim.
He was fouled on the play and completed the and-one, which gave the Magic a four-point lead to help close out the LeBron James-led Lakers.
Gordon finished the game with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field with six rebounds and two steals.
The Staples Center crowd was there to see Gordon at his best. Not merely with the dunks he threw down — that includes a windmill jam he recorded in the first half after the whistle was blown.
With the Magic playing without Evan Fournier, more responsibility fell on Aaron Gordon. It was not merely the increased defensive attention he had to give to guard LeBron James.
Gordon pulled out perhaps his greatest in-game dunk. In the third quarter, Gordon faked out his defender and lobed it off the glass to himself and finished with a one-handed slam.
This is quintessentially Gordon. This is what he is best at, with air beneath him rising toward the basket and looking to finish over someone or destroy a rim. This is his greatest skill even this deep into his career.
Gordon is, at his core, an athlete. The trick with Gordon remains to put together all of his other skills.
This season has been extremely tough. He is only averaging 13.2 points per game, his lowest since 2016. He is shooting a career-worst 41.3 percent from the field. After several years of improving from beyond the arc, Gordon is shooting 27.3 percent from beyond the arc (the worst since his rookie year).
Magic fans hoped Gordon would take a leap in his game this year and become the All-Star everyone has envisioned in him. Gordon has fallen well short of that mark.
Injuries have slowed Gordon down — first an elbow to the head in the preseason than a sprained ankle in November. Gordon still seems to be recovering from that initial injury, dealing with ankle, calf and hamstring soreness.
Gordon tried to play through it but clearly was not getting the same lift and his performance suffered throughout.
Gordon sat out a game hoping to get himself right again. He was chasing something else. He was chasing himself.
Gordon said Wednesday’s game was him being himself.
Those dunks represented that. Gordon in his 37.5 minutes against the Lakers looked more like himself than he has at any point in the season. He played under control, largely avoiding the play-stopping isolation play that leads to his most inefficient shots (it still popped up from time to time).
Gordon made quick decisions and attacked the rim. He shot eight free throw attempts (making six).
Not to mention Gordon was key to holding LeBron James to 19 points on 9-for-19 shooting. Gordon did a good job staying down and staying with James, making him work for all of his shots and forcing him to become a passer almost exclusively.
Gordon’s performance came two days after he hit the game-winning shot against the Sacramento Kings. A game in which he scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
Wednesday’s game was only the sixth time this season Gordon has scored 15 or more points in back to back games. The Magic have not gotten a consistent offensive effort from Gordon. It was just the third time this season Gordon has shot better than 50 percent in consecutive games.
That should display how much Gordon has struggled this year. He has not provided that consistency. It is the missing element.
Coach Steve Clifford told Josh Robbins of The Athletic that Aaron Gordon remains the X-factor for the team (especially now that Jonathan Isaac is no longer healthy). His struggles this year have been as much a part of the Magic’s perceived under-performance in the first half of the season.
Gordon’s impact has come at an opportune time, in which the Magic need him the most. Orlando is depleted with so many guys out with injuries and so far Gordon is stepping up to the challenge.
Gordon is taking flight again.