The Difference in Denver: How Bruce Brown’s Emergence Has the Nuggets on the Verge of the NBA Finals
Early in the fourth quarter of Game 5 between the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets, Bruce Brown waved off Jamal Murray, who obliged his teammate and spaced out to the right wing. At the same time, Aaron Gordon sauntered up to the top of the key and set a screen for Brown. Brown curled around Gordon, veered toward the middle of the key, jetted a crossover back into his right hand and overwhelmed Deandre Ayton before drawing a foul.
The fifth-year guard canned both foul shots for his 20th and 21st points of the night. He ended with 25 in Denver’s 118-102 blowout victory. Two days later, Brown and the Nuggets again routed their foe from the desert to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Last summer, Brown joined Denver on a two-year, $13.2 million deal. Over the past seven months, the former Miami Hurricane has enjoyed the finest campaign of his NBA tenure, averaging career-highs in minutes (28.5) and points (11.5). Alongside other new additions like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Christian Braun, he’s helped reshape the identity of Denver’s perimeter defense and proven instrumental in the club’s bona fide title aspirations.
As the postseason progresses, teams often run into the issue of not having a reliable five-man group. The Cleveland Cavaliers encountered this in the first round. The Phoenix Suns encountered this in the second round. They’re not the only teams to experience this phenomenon.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, are comfortable closing with any two of Brown, Caldwell-Pope and Michael Porter Jr. next to Murray, Gordon and Nikola Jokic. Brown doesn’t start, but he can certainly finish games when the opportunity arises. That’s a massive boon to be able to preserve thus far and differentiates the Nuggets from the majority of playoff teams (as does the fact they’re still playing, duh).
During the regular season, the Nuggets were outscored by 367 points in the 1,628 minutes that Jokic rested. In the playoffs, they’ve outscored opponents by 10 points in 118 minutes that he’s caught a breather. Tallying 12.2 points (62.2% true shooting), 3.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals in 26 minutes a night, Brown’s efforts are part of this achievement.
At various moments in the Suns-Nuggets series, the ESPN broadcast remarked that on the second day of free agency, an inquisitive Michael Malone, Denver’s head coach, called Brown and asked why he hadn’t signed yet. Brown told Malone he wasn’t confident anyone knew how to properly utilize him. The Nuggets have rectified that.
In the regular season, he handled the ball far more than he had with the Brooklyn Nets the prior two years. His rate of assisted makes was 65%, per NBA.com — a sharp decline from 77% (2020-21) and 78% (2021-22) in his Brooklyn days.
Malone and the Nuggets are empowering him as their backup point guard rather than the off-ball cutting and rolling wing that Brooklyn deployed him as. His on-ball responsibilities have only expanded in the playoffs to help buoy non-Jokic minutes. His rate of assisted field goals is down from 65% to 40%. He’s orchestrating more pick-and-rolls than ever before and bringing Denver welcomed downhill juice in the backcourt that complement’s Murray’s preference for bombing threes and dancing to the midrange.
In the Suns’ first-round win over the Los Angeles Clippers, they struggled at the point of attack against Russell Westbrook and Norman Powell’s explosive, powerful slashing. Brown isn’t exactly like those two, but he presented a similar issue for the Suns in the second round. His blend of burst, bounce and strength overwhelmed them on the interior.
43% percent of his shots are coming at the rim. He’s making 79% of them. Just 35% of his field goals there are assisted. He’s been a springy, sagacious, steadfast driver and finisher in the playoffs, while also rediscovering the mojo on his floater (47% between 4 and 14 feet). Time and time again, he’s zipping past defenders and slipping around or pile-driving through paint protectors.
His poise and cadence as an initiator pop. His approach conveys he’s well-versed on the ball, but hadn’t been afforded chances since his days with the Detroit Pistons. These playoffs and this season have been the stage for him to showcase it.
Brown’s helped stabilize Denver’s offense and fortify its once-shoddy defense. Through two rounds, its 110.8 defensive rating is 2.6 points below the playoff average. In the regular season, its 114.6 defensive rating was only 0.5 points below league average. The Nuggets contained the Suns to a 111.3 offensive rating last round. The strategy was contingent on crowding Kevin Durant’s handle, punctual doubles against him and Devin Booker, and zoning up off the ball to dissuade passes to open teammates.
Brown was a cog in that, flustering Durant’s handle numerous times and shrinking passing windows for both stars as he roamed off of Phoenix’s tenuous supporting cast. Prone to overhelping on the strongside or freelancing at the expense of necessary rotations or switches, he’s not without faults defensively. But he’s absolutely among the reasons the Nuggets’ defense has stifled the Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves in various playoff games on their trek to Western Conference Finals.
In the regular season, he netted a career-high 35.8% of the career-high 254 triples he hoisted, nearly as many as he launched the previous four years combined (342). His .343 three-point rate was also a career-high. He embraced cutting and shooting around Jokic to supplement his reserve ball-handling gig.
In the playoffs, his three-point rate is down to .287 and he’s marred in a 7-of-27 funk beyond the arc. Instead, he’s migrating to the basket, commandeering more possessions and forming quite the synergistic ball-handling tandem with Murray. On the other end, he’s filling the gaps around Gordon, Caldwell-Pope and Braun as they all aim to simplify Jokic’s duties.
As he and the Nuggets prosper this spring, he’s become their chameleon sixth man. He’s malleable, dependable and really freaking good.