One of the under-discussed aspects of the Denver Nuggets playoff matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves has been Aaron Gordon.

Yes, Nikola Jokić is at the center of everything, and Jamal Murray dropped 40 points again, and Michael Porter Jr. “won them the game” on Wednesday in Denver and showed up big time in Minnesota on Friday. All of those things are true.

But Aaron Gordon’s defensive capabilities have shown out as well, particularly in his matchup against Karl-Anthony Towns.

“Physicality, toughness, aggression,” Michael Malone said of Aaron Gordon’s best traits after Friday’s Game 3 win. “Karl was very aggressive tonight, but over the course of three games, I think Aaron Gordon’s really helped to set the tone on the defensive end of the floor, and he’s up for that challenge.”

Through three games, Towns is averaging 16.0 points on 40.9% from the field and 31.3% from three-point range. He found a bit of a rhythm last game, but it may be too little, too late at this point in the series.

It hasn’t just been Gordon, but he’s the leading contributor. Jeff Green has also done a mostly fantastic job of bothering Towns. It’s not surprise that the overlapping traits of Gordon and Green (6’8″ frame, grown man strength, athletic, savvy) have helped both players in the matchup.

Let’s focus on Gordon though, who’s finally fulfilling the vision the Nuggets had for him.

Gordon was brought in during the 2020-21 season to be Denver’s modern replacement for Paul Millsap. Denver thought Jerami Grant would be that guy, but after Grant left for the Detroit Pistons in the 2020 offseason, the Nuggets were left reeling. The team struggled to defend at a high enough level throughout the early part of the regular season, and they also clearly needed a “big wing” defender to match up with the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Luka Dončić for the 2021 playoffs.

Enter Gordon, who the Nuggets acquired in March of 2021 by trading Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton, and a 2025 first round pick. The ideal fit was seamless but short lived, with Murray tearing his ACL the next month and Denver’s playoff vision taking a major hit. Gordon spent time in the 2021 playoffs guarding Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul, none of whom really qualify as big wings the Nuggets expected him to guard. Denver survived the Lillard experience barely, but the Booker/Paul duo shredded Denver in a second round sweep.

The next season, without either Murray or Michael Porter Jr. on the floor, it was more of the same for the Nuggets against the Golden State Warriors. What’s more: the Warriors also didn’t have a big forward for Gordon to match up with. It was either Draymond Green in starting lineup configurations or chasing around one of Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, or Klay Thompson around the perimeter. Whatever the case, Gordon wasn’t ready to provide an elite defensive impact against guards, and it showed against Golden State.

Murray and Porter each returned to the starting this year, and that affected Gordon’s role on both ends. More often during the regular season, the Nuggets had Murray defend the starting point guard on the other team. That wasn’t something they could really do during the previous season with Monte Morris at the same starting position. With Porter out there, Gordon’s role changed offensively. This year, Gordon’s playing more in the Jeff Green dunker spot and baseline cutter role than as a perimeter creator/shooter like Porter. It’s not 1-to-1, but Gordon’s overall burden has been easier this year, and he’s thriving now as a result.

Of course, he’s had help on the defensive end in the form of three additions to Denver’s perimeter defense: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Christian Brown. When Murray isn’t guarding perimeter guys, it’s because one of those aforementioned defenders has been excellent in that role. That means that Gordon hasn’t had to guard an elite defensive player every single night, and the Nuggets have been more judicious in deploying him against the best of the best.

In the modern NBA, with teams constantly switching and guarding isolation and post-up mismatch basketball, Gordon is the connector the Nuggets have needed. He’s not an elite jump shooter, creator, or isolation defender, but he’s really good in most category, and that allows him to add value to just about any lineup. During the regular season this year, it was Jokić who led the team in plus-minus and net rating, but Gordon was right behind him in each category, providing his own impact in ways that only he can for the Nuggets rotation.

During this series, Gordon has matched Towns step for step. According to NBA’s matchup data, Towns has scored just 13 points while defended by Gordon. Towns is 5-of-14 from the field and 1-of-4 from three-point range in those minutes, getting to the free throw line just twice in three games while covered by Gordon.

The kicker? Towns has zero assists in three games while matched up with Gordon compared to just six turnovers. The Timberwolves offense has suffered greatly when playing through their star big man.

It certainly hasn’t been just Gordon who has stopped Towns in his tracks, but it’s his physicality that is greatly slowing down the Timberwolves star. Gordon is playing with purpose but defending without fouling. He’s strong as an ox, and that’s caused Towns to drive around him rather than through him. As long as Towns isn’t allowed a wide open lane to the rim, he hasn’t dealt with resistance well on his drives, throwing up bad shots and bad passes leading to Nuggets points the other direction.

Gordon has turned Karl-Anthony Towns into primarily a jump shooter. The Timberwolves are running pick and roll with Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert a lot, and that often leaves Towns to space the floor in the corner. The Nuggets have improved their defensive coverages, and it helps when Gordon can take Towns out of the picture almost entirely.

At shootaround prior to Game 3, Gordon was understated in the credit he wanted to take for matching up so well with Towns defensively. He shared that he of course did his homework, that the team’s scouting reports and personnel cheat sheets were very helpful.

“Just doing whatever our team needs to help secure this win,” Gordon shared. “If that means guarding KAT, then so be it.”

Towns isn’t exactly like one of the aforementioned apex wings Gordon was brought in to defend, but his style of play is closer to that than to a traditional center. Dribble drives, perimeter shooting, and can be pushed off his spot by a strong player. That sounds more like a big forward than Nikola Jokić or Joel Embiid style bigs. The fact that Towns can’t punish Gordon a bit more for the size mismatch is almost as much of a reflection of his skill set as it is Gordon’s strengths.

Of course Gordon’s taking advantage of his matchup against Towns by using his speed, quickness, strength round the rim, and leaping ability. Gordon’s produced 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field while being directly guarded by Towns. It’s been a lot of fun plays around the rim and the occasional three-pointer that have left the Timberwolves reeling.

For the Nuggets, Gordon has once again stepped into a needed role. What he’s now doing finally coincides with what he’s best at, and it’s working. The Timberwolves are losing the frontcourt battle by a lot right now, and Gordon’s high level of strength, athleticism, and basketball savvy have contributed to that margin. Jokić and Porter may be providing most of the scoring and shooting, but Gordon’s connectivity has been big.

If the Nuggets do end up advancing in this series, they’re likely to meet the Phoenix Suns and Kevin Durant. Durant is a different beat than Towns, clearly capable of playing through contact and can shoot over Gordon without any hesitation. The Nuggets will need the best version of Gordon they’ve ever had for that matchup, but if he plays as well as he has against Towns, there’s at least some hope.

Until then, enjoy the Gordon and Towns matchup, because it’s gone as strongly in Denver’s favor as much as as anybody could’ve expected.