Christian Braun could barely contain his smile.
The Denver Nuggets rookie received the ball in transition early in the fourth quarter in a tied NBA Finals series, saw a five-time All-NBA and All-Defensive selection in front of him and charged into Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler's chest, muscling in another layup through him. The bucket gave Denver a 21-point lead, forced a Miami timeout and Braun bit his lip walking to the huddle. It was a big-boy move from a baby-faced kid.
Game 3 marked a historic night for Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray in the Nuggets' 109-94 victory. Jokić's 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists made him the first player ever to log a 30-20-10 triple-double in the Finals, and Murray's 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists made them the first teammates ever to record 30-point triple-doubles in the same game, regular season or playoffs. But it was Braun's infusion of energy that turned the game into a laugher and saved Denver's supporting cast from facing a load of questions.
"My job's pretty easy," Braun told reporters, humbling himself, "and those guys make me look pretty good."
Michael Porter Jr.'s pedigree (No. 1 prep prospect in 2017), size (6-foot-10), contract ($179 million) and regular-season production (17.4 points per game on 49/41/80 shooting splits) mean he should be Denver's third option, except he has been anything but. Porter followed a 2-for-8 shooting effort in the Nuggets' Game 2 loss with a 1-for-7 night Wednesday, and his defense has been no better. He is averaging 7 points on putrid shooting — 8-of-31 field goals (25.8%), 3-of-19 3-pointers (15.8%) — through three Finals games.
It has looked worse, and Nuggets coach Michael Malone did what he could not bring himself to in Sunday's 111-108 defeat. He benched Porter for the entire fourth quarter in favor of Braun, who repeatedly delivered. Good thing, too, because Denver has not gotten much from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all series (5-of-16 FG), Bruce Brown cooled off in Game 3 (1-of-5 FG), and 36-year-old Jeff Green only has so much lift left in his legs.
"I told him, 'You won us the game,'" Jokić told reporters. "He's a winner, and he won us the game."
Braun is, by definition, a winner. He led his high school from suburban Overland Park to three straight state championships in Kansas before joining the Jayhawks, with whom he won the 2022 NCAA title, registering 12 points, 12 rebounds and the game-sealing defensive stop to close his three-year college career in style.
"He’s very, very mature for his age," said Green, Denver's veteran voice. "He’s been in situations where he has played for a title, in the NCAA tournament last year. Obviously, it’s not quite the same, but the aspect of fighting until the very end and fighting for a championship, he understands and he showed it tonight."
The Nuggets drafted Braun 21st overall, and he has now played more playoff minutes than any other rookie in his class. If Denver takes two more games from the Heat, Braun will join Bill Russell, Henry Bibby, Magic Johnson and Billy Thompson as the only players ever to win college and NBA titles in consecutive seasons.
And the Nuggets might need Braun to do it. With only Aaron Gordon complementing their stars in Game 3, they needed another outlet to bust Miami's defense whenever it went zone and/or overloaded on Jokić and Murray's two-man game. Braun answered the call, cutting for four of his seven baskets on just eight shots.
"That's a rare rookie right here," said Gordon, Denver's fourth and only other player in double digits. "From Day 1, he's been on top of it. This is a real winner right here. He's always in the right spot. 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 1, and nothing changes. He's in the right place at the right time on the biggest stage, and now you guys are getting to see it."
On back-to-back possessions against the zone early in the second quarter, he cut behind it for a dunk and drove through it for a layup against a defense that had to account for Jokić, giving Denver a 33-32 lead. On back-to-back possessions late in the third quarter, he again sliced through the zone, where Jokić found him for another layup, and he poked free a Butler pass for a breakaway dunk that pushed the edge to 82-63.
When the Heat threatened another fourth-quarter comeback, Braun held them at bay with a flurry midway through the frame. On four consecutive possessions, he 1) drove into the heart of Miami's defense and found Jokić for a 10-footer; 2) took Butler off the dribble from the corner, drew Bam Adebayo and dumped it off to Jokić again for a pair of free throws; 3) set a screen for Jokić, curled to the corner and cut to the bucket, where a double-teamed Murray hit him for a layup plus the foul; and 4) took it to Butler's chest.
"If you look around, there's not many rookies playing meaningful minutes this time of year, and it speaks to Christian's confidence," said Malone. "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. He's 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.
"Tonight, man, I could just feel the confidence oozing out of him, the physical aggressive drives, making plays for guys against their zone. It was really fun to watch a young man step up the way Christian did."
It was not just Braun's scoring, either. He held up defensively on multiple possessions opposite Butler.
"He knows the offense will come when he's doing those things, and he's playing with a lot of confidence," said Murray. "We're finding him like he's a five-year vet. He's just playing the game the right way, every game. Even if he makes mistakes, he knows how to bounce back, and that's huge for a rookie, especially getting these kind of minutes. He's got a lot more game to come, not just in these Finals but in his career."
Fifteen points in a Finals win is no small feat for a player a year removed from his draft. Only three others have done it since 1980. Miami's Tyler Herro scored 17 points on 18 shots in Game 3 of the 2020 Finals. Sam Cassell netted 15 points on only 6 shots in Game 3 of the 1994 Finals. And Magic hit that mark three times in the 1980 Finals, including his historic 42-point performance in a close-out Game 6. That is the list.
The Nuggets do not need that from Braun to put the squeeze on Miami in Game 4 and head home with a title shot. Jokić and Murray have the historics covered. They just need Braun to be what he was in Game 3 — and what Porter decidedly has not been — an energetic alternative playmaker unafraid of the moment.