MIAMI — The moment was not overwhelming for Bruce Brown, not with the opportunity to close out Game 4 of the NBA Finals, not with the opportunity to shine just 8 miles from where he played college ball, and not with the opportunity to show he was far more than an energy defender off the bench.
Brown felt shunned in free agency last summer, despite a sparking playoff series against the Celtics as a member of the Nets. The Dorchester, Mass., native thought the offers would be pouring in for a combo guard with an edge, but the Nuggets responded with the best offer, a two-year, $13 million deal with a player option for the second season, basically a prove-it deal on a team with championship aspirations.
And on the championship stage, with the Nuggets needing one more bucket to beat the valiant but inferior Heat, Brown drained a 14-footer plus a free throw with 2:04 left, as Denver moved to within one win of its first NBA title with a 108-95 victory at Kaseya Center on Friday night.
Brown, a Wakefield (Mass.) High product, scored 11 of his 21 points in the final period, when two-time MVP Nikola Jokic picked up his fifth foul with 9:24 left and Denver holding on to a 10-point lead. The Nuggets desperately needed offense with Jokic on the bench and Jamal Murray struggling with his shot.
Miami won Game 2 by crippling Denver with a fourth-quarter barrage, and it did the same in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics. On Friday night, the Heat scored the first 8 points of the fourth to draw to within 5, and the Nuggets’ lead was 7 when Brown responded with an acrobatic layup and later a free throw to push the margin to 97-87.
After that 14-foot jumper, he added another layup and then a sealing stepback 3-pointer for a 17-point lead. The former University of Miami standout stunned the crowd in his college town, responding with perhaps the best offensive stretch of his career.
“Can I say that I envisioned him scoring 11 points [in the fourth quarter] on the road in Game 4 of the Finals?” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I can’t say that. But I did envision him being a ball handler, a playmaker. I watched him for the years that I’ve coached against him, I watched him in the playoffs last year against Boston, saw his impact of guarding guys like [Jayson] Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown, but his ability to facilitate, play with the ball, play off the ball, make shots.
“And the one thing I know about Bruce, I know he went to college down here, but he’s not afraid. We’ve got a lot of guys that have a quiet toughness about them, and Bruce Brown is definitely one that embodies that Boston toughness that he brings to the table every night.”
As with many top high school basketball prospects from Boston, Brown said he knew he had to finish his career in prep school. He played his final two seasons at Vermont Academy before playing two seasons at Miami. Nearly 22, Brown decided to forgo his final two seasons and enter the 2018 NBA Draft, where the Pistons selected him in the second round.
Those humble beginnings were not lost on him. Brown knew he was a raw player who needed work. He has always been a relentless defender, meanwhile his offensive game improved exponentially. Brown made 24 3-pointers as a rookie with Detroit. He made 91 this season with Denver.
“It just shows the work I’ve put in each offseason,” he said. “Remember, when I first came in the league, I couldn’t shoot. I wasn’t confident shooting the ball at all. I was a mutt guy. They left me wide open and let me shoot. So that took a toll on my confidence, but it put a chip on my shoulder. So I just got in the gym and worked, and now it’s showing on the biggest stage.”
Not everybody on the Nuggets was thrilled with Brown’s shot selection down the stretch.
“When he did a stepback three, I almost — I wanted to punch him, but when he made it, I was so happy,” Jokic said. “He had an amazing night, and he was really aggressive in the fourth quarter. He’s learning, and he is accepting, and that’s what the best thing is about him. He was really good tonight, aggressive, attacking, and not being scared of the moment.”
Brown is proud of his Boston roots. He embraced leaving home and spending those years in Vermont for the express purpose of playing at a high-level Division 1 school. But he’s the first to point out he’s from Dorchester, a kid growing up during the Pierce-Garnett-Allen era, becoming the latest local product to make a splash in the NBA big time.
”I think just being a Bostonian, everybody from Boston loves Boston. Me growing up there, that’s all I knew,” Brown said. “I think just the grind of being there, growing up, loving where I’m from, loving the sports, loving everybody I’ve met being from there. It just speaks for me being from Boston. Definitely a lot of hoopers from Boston that I looked up to like Shabazz Napier, Wayne Selden, those guys who I’ve actually watched play. I watched Shabazz play in the [Boston Neighborhood Basketball League] when I was there when I was younger.
“Without those guys, I don’t think I would be here. I didn’t think a kid from where I’m from can make it out. Those guys played a huge role in my success.”
Brown’s decision to accept that prove-it type of contract from Denver is paying off handsomely, and he should get just rewards in free agency this summer.