2023 NBA Finals

Christian Braun explodes off bench, emerges as unlikely hero in Game 3

Nuggets rookie Christian Braun scores 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting and helps put away Miami in the 4th quarter.

Christian Braun was tremendous off the bench for the Nuggets in Game 3, scoring 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting in 19 minutes.

MIAMI — Denver Nuggets rookie Christian Braun played like he was one of those undrafted Miami Heat overachievers Wednesday in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

No one’s dissing Braun’s actual roots and journey to the Nuggets’ roster — he was, in fact, the 21st selection in the 2022 draft, picked right after the San Antonio Spurs’ Malaki Branham and right before Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (by way of Memphis and Minnesota). Braun (pronounced “Brown”) had earned that spot in three seasons at Kansas, including his vital role in the Jayhawks’ NCAA championship a couple months before the Nuggets grabbed him.

Still, in the context of this Finals, lumping the rookie in with Miami’s feisty role players ranks as high praise. Guys such as Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson have produced time and time again, proving essential to the eighth-seeded Heat clawing through three rounds and matching Denver at 1-1 through Game 2 over the weekend in the best-of-seven title round.

That changed Wednesday, with Braun as the unexpected spark, this time from the Nuggets’ side. The 6-foot-7 wing, a native of Kansas, scored 15 points off the bench — matching his total from Denver’s previous seven games, dating back to the Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns. He hit seven of his eight shots in 19 minutes, grabbed four rebounds, had a notable steal and spent several trips on the defensive end matched up against salty Heat veteran Jimmy Butler.

Christian Braun says the Nuggets are looking to win 2 games in Miami after taking Game 3.

Braun finished as Denver’s third-highest scorer on a night when Nikola Jokic (32 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists) and Jamal Murray (34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) made teammate triple-double history. For all the crooked numbers from the Nuggets’ two stars, their 2-1 series lead doesn’t happen without the rookie’s unfazed performance.

“Tonight, man, I could just feel the confidence kind of oozing out of him,” coach Michael Malone said, “the physical aggressive drives, making plays for guys against their zone. It was really fun to watch a young man step up like the way Christian did tonight.”

It’s a common view in the NBA that rookies aren’t rookies by the end of a season, with a full schedule’s worth of games, practices, tough lessons and hard knocks under their belts. But this is another level of shaking off any first-year fretting — coming up big, in the Finals, on the road.

“That’s a rare rookie right here,” said Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, sharing the postgame podium with Braun. “From day one he’s been on top of it. This is a real winner right here. He’s in the right place at the right time, and he’s been doing that all year, he’s been doing that from day one, and nothing changes.”

Winner is right. If Denver can find two more victories in the next four games, Braun will have won a championship for the fifth time in seven years. Before his three-year stay at Kansas ended triumphantly at the Final Four, his high school team — Blue Valley Northwest in Overland Park, Kan. — won three consecutive state titles.

There’s pedigree to this player that predates even that. Braun’s mother, Lisa, and six siblings all earned athletic scholarships after all-state honors in high school. They were inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame together in 2019, with Lisa having earned All-Big Eight status twice at the University of Missouri.

Braun got some tough love from that crew on his way up, telling a reporter recently: “Mom doesn’t give me constructive criticism at all.” In other words, it’s criticism, just not all that constructive.

That gauntlet helped Braun reach this stage, though. He only averaged more than 20 minutes in April, yet he never averaged less than 10 as the Nuggets nurtured him along. He’s the only rookie in their tight postseason rotation.

“The guys trusted me all year,” Braun said, “so when I get in the game, I just try to defend and do the little things. … My job is not very hard — I’ve just got to come in, play with energy. And they find me in the right spots on offense and the defense [I just give] effort.

“Playing with Nikola, playing with Jamal, whoever it is, just got to be ready for the ball, and today found me in some pretty easy spots.”

His contribution to Miami’s defeat could be termed “death of a dozen cuts.” It was Braun’s savvy and commitment to movement that paid off in cutting layup after cutting layup (something starter Michael Porter Jr., struggling with his shot, should try more often). Jokic found Braun on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter, Gordon and Jokic set him up again in the third and Murray delivered the ball to Braun in motion for an and-1 bucket in the fourth.

He also had a pair of breakout dunks, one after stealing the ball from Butler in the third, another in the fourth. That last one made it 93-72 with 8:28 to play, plenty of margin for Denver to close.

“He’s earned it,” veteran teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said in Denver’s locker room. “The amount of work he put in, in the summertime, in training camp, throughout the season. Even in the postseason, man, he’s not scared of the moment. We love him for that – we throw him in there, he knows what to do.

“I was talking to Reggie [Jackson, Nuggets guard], ‘It would feel good not to play the fourth quarter sometimes.’ He had it going.

And that confidence Malone sensed oozing?

“He showed up with that,” Denver’s coach said. “When you win three straight high school state championships, when you win a national championship in which he never came out of the game, played all 40 minutes, he’s very confident, and he should be.

“We believed in him, we drafted him, and he’s everything we hoped for and more, but that confidence is something that his mother, his father, his family, I think he’s had from a very early age.”

Arriving at the right time, on the right stage, when the Nuggets needed him most.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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