His thundering dunk sounded loud enough. Christian Braun’s scream sounded even louder.
For a national audience unfamiliar with the Denver Nuggets’ rookie, well they saw and heard Braun make a roaring introduction in Denver’s win over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the NBA Finals Wednesday evening. Then, Braun posted his first double-digit post-season scoring performance (15 points) on efficient shooting (7-for-8) along with some hustle plays (four rebounds, one steal).
Nothing epitomized his energy more than late in the third quarter when Braun stole Jimmy Butler’s pass, raced downcourt and threw down a one-handed dunk. After landing, Braun then yelled toward the Heat’s confused and frustrated fans sitting behind the basket.
“I don’t even mean to, to be honest with you,” Braun told reporters following Thursday’s practice about his post-dunk shout . “It just kind of comes out. I can’t really control it. Those are the plays I like to make.”
Braun has reacted that way following key plays since starring at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kan. and at University of Kansas (2019-22). He couldn’t help himself showing those same instincts on the NBA Finals stage. Perhaps he unleashes more emotions when Denver plays Miami in Game 4 on Friday (8:30 pm ET, ABC).
“I could just feel the confidence kind of oozing out of him, the physical aggressive drives, making plays for guys against their zone,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters. “It was really fun to watch a young man step up like the way Christian did.”
Christian Braun and why he enticed the Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets hardly seemed surprised by what they saw. They selected the 6-foot-6, 210-pound forward at No. 21 in the 2022 NBA Draft after feeling intrigued with his competitive motor.
Though Denver’s identity primarily focuses on its two-time MVP (Nikola Jokic) and dynamic point guard (Jamal Murray), the Nuggets projected Christian Braun could enhance their team-oriented culture and depth. After all, Braun had already won three high school state championships (2017-19) and an NCAA title (2022).
Since then, the Nuggets’ coaching and training staff became impressed with Braun’s training habits and competitiveness. Though Braun averaged only 4.7 points on 49.5% shooting and 2.4 rebounds in 15.5 minutes off the bench in the regular season, the Nuggets have become encouraged with his growth. As Malone told reporters, “He’s everything we hoped for and more.”
Braun has logged double-digit performances in 14 regular-season games, including a career-high 19 points against Minnesota (Feb. 5). He has led the Nuggets in several games in blocks (nine) and steals (seven). And he has even earned six starts amid various team injuries.
That pales to what Braun displayed, however, in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
“I’m just grateful to be here, obviously,” Braun told reporters. “This is something I wanted to do my whole life.”
Braun ensured that reality matched his dream. Though he played sparingly in the first round (12.6 minutes per game), second round (13.7) and Western Conference Finals (6.7), Braun appeared prepared in various ways.
On one play, Braun drove to the rack after Jokic set a screen for him at the top of the key. After Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon drew a double team on another play, Gordon connected with Braun for an easy layup as he cut along the baseline.
Later in the third quarter, Jokic drew a double team in the post before finding Braun flashing across the paint for another layup. On the next play, Braun deflected Butler’s pass before finishing with a fast-break dunk that led to his animated outburst. Murray quickly embraced him.
“He knows what to do to stay on the floor,” Jamal Murray told reporters. “He’s solid on defense, shoots the gaps, plays hard, is in the right spot. He knows the offense will come when he’s doing those things, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Braun showed more confidence as the Nuggets sought to protect their 82-68 lead entering the fourth quarter. Braun drove through traffic before setting up Jokic for a set shot. As he caught a double team at the top of the key, Murray saw Braun cut toward the basket before catching his pass, making the layup and drawing a foul.
On a fast break, Braun then drove past Butler, pulled up for a floater and fell down as the ball went in the basket. The Heat called timeout, while the Nuggets nursed a 91-72 cushion with 8:29 left. During that stretch, Braun scored five of Denver’s nine points and collected an assist.
Afterwards, Jokic embraced Braun and told him, “you won us the game.” Braun respectfully disagreed. After all, Jokic (32 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists) and Murray (34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) became the first duo in NBA Finals history to have a triple double in the same game.
“Nikola and Jamal put me in the right places,” Braun told reporters. “Obviously, our team is set up for everybody to succeed and everybody to be in the right spots. They make it so much easier on us. When they make those plays, it’s our job to make their life easier, too. We wouldn’t be that open if there wasn’t that much attention on them. They make the right play every time.”
The Nuggets seem to think the same thing about Braun, who may earn more playing time in Game 4.
“From day one he’s been on top of it. This is a real winner right here,” Gordon told reporters while pointing at Braun at the podium. “I say that because 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.”