Only four rookies have dropped at least 15 points in an NBA Finals Game in the last 20 years.
Miami’s Tyler Herro did it three separate times in the 2020 Finals. His teammate at the time, Kendrick Nunn, also joined him on the list with 18 points in 2020. Way back in 2007, Daniel “Boobie” Gibson dropped 16 points off the bench as a first-year pro.
On Wednesday, in what was easily the biggest game of the Denver Nuggets’ season, Christian Braun became the fourth rookie to do so and finished with 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting. It was the latest example of Denver’s rookie stalwart exceeding expectations.
Braun was picked 21st overall by Denver last June. There were no guarantees that he’d be an impact player, much less one at this junction in the season.
Here’s a list of the last fifteen players to get picked 21st overall: Braun, Keon Johnson, Tyrese Maxey, Brandon Clarke, Grayson Allen, Terrence Ferguson, DeAndre’ Bembry, Justin Anderson, Mitch McGary, Gorgui Dieng, Jared Sulinger, Nolan Smith, Craig Brackins, Darren Collison, and Ryan Anderson.
Some good players, no doubt, yet not one of them has played in an NBA Finals. Until Braun.
He’s been a winner his entire basketball career, a mindset instilled by his parents, both of whom were hoopers. Braun’s won a championship at every level—in high school and in college at Kansas—and is now two wins away from making it a trifecta in the NBA.
It didn’t take him long to claw out a spot in Michael Malone’s rotation, a notoriously hard thing to do as a first-year player.
“Christian has proved himself all year long,” said Malone after Game 3. “He’s been in the rotation throughout these 18 playoff games now, and if you look around, there’s not many rookies playing meaningful minutes in the NBA this time of year, and it speaks to Christian’s confidence. It speaks to him being a winner. He’s won at every level: High school, college, and now he’s in the NBA Finals as a rookie in the NBA. He just has stayed ready the whole year, mentally, physically, emotionally. That kid never gets too high, never gets too low. Very calm, cool, and collected young man.”
He had moments against Minnesota and Phoenix in the first two rounds of the postseason. More importantly, he was the only rookie to receive any amount of playing time past Round 1.
The Western Conference Finals weren’t as kind to Braun. His time on the court declined from 12 to 4 to 3 minutes in the first three games of the series. Denver lost his minutes in all three contests, eventually resulting in his first DNP of the postseason in the closeout Game 4.
But his time wasn’t done.
He played 8 minutes in Game 1 of the Finals. In Game 2, that number rose to 15, and Denver won those minutes by +8, the first time Braun produced a positive plus/minus since the second round. He had multiple high-energy plays, ripping away three steals and playing a massive role in Denver’s 40-14 run that occurred between the first and second quarter.
That brings us to Game 3, or what shall hereby be known as “The Christian Braun game.” Braun checked in late in the first quarter and immediately got to work.
Miami has played more zone defense than any other team in playoff history and has largely been successful with it throughout their deep playoff run. Though their unique style of defensive coverage has sloughed off in terms of effectiveness against Denver, it’s still stymied the Nuggets in moments, particularly when Nikola Jokić is off the floor and early in fourth quarters.
Denver’s most common zone-buster throughout the first two games of the Finals was to place Jokić in the middle of the floor where he could post-up, shoot a midrange shot, or spray passes to teammates all over the floor. It’s something we wrote about this week. Miami counter-adjusted to Denver’s zone adjustment by fronting Jokić and denying him the ball in Game 2. It worked, and the HEAT tied up the series 1-1.
So, it was Denver’s turn to adjust, and Malone did so by altering Jokić’s positioning. Instead of placing him directly in the middle of the zone at the elbows, Denver had their superstar center post up on the low block. It threw Miami off in Game 3 after seeing Jokić utilized one way in the first two contests.
Of course, in order for the strategy to work effectively, the players around Jokić would need to shift Miami’s defense accordingly. Enter Christian Braun, who exhibited excellence as a cutter well beyond his years.
His first bucket came when Miami sent a double-team toward Jokić while in its zone scheme early in the second quarter. Duncan Robinson was in charge of playing in the middle of Jeff Green and Braun on the opposite (or “weak”) side of the floor according to Miami’s zone defense rules, but Braun put Robinson in an impossible situation by cutting along the baseline for the two-pointer.