Bruce Brown and a bittersweet career-defining highlight reel in NBA Finals

MIAMI — If time is running out on the Nuggets’ symbiotic relationship with Bruce Brown, at least they’ll always have a special place reserved in his pregame routine.

Game 4 of the 2023 NBA Finals, where else but the city he was taught the ritual, belongs in the highlight reel rotation from now on. It will forever inspire comfort and confidence.

In autumn of 2017, Brown was slumping. It was his second year at the University of Miami, where his responsibilities were heightened as the team’s top returning scorer. He wasn’t meeting expectations early on. A shooting drought had ripple effects on his aggressiveness. Coach Jim Larrañaga took notice and offered Brown a solution. Not X’s and O’s advice, though.

“All he told me to do was go watch some highlights,” Bruce told The Post, smiling in a Miami Hurricanes ballcap. “He told me to watch my highlights.”

To this day, Brown pulls up videos of his own highlights to gas himself up before games, especially when he needs some extra gumption.

It’s one of the ways “the U” left an indelible mark on Brown that shaped him into the Nuggets’ indispensable sixth man this season. From the psychological to the positional, his college origins under Larrañaga are directly linked to his current role, in which Brown shepherded the Nuggets within a win of an NBA title Friday night.

His success as a backup point guard has also likely earned him a lucrative payday, making the proceedings bittersweet as a player option looms this offseason. Due to salary cap restrictions, it’s possible Game 5 on Monday will be Brown’s last game as a Nugget, with the veteran likely to seek the payday he didn’t receive when he hit free agency last offseason.

So it’s only fitting that his potential last hoorah is a series passing through Miami — and that he dropped 21 clutch points on 8-of-11 shooting in Game 4. Brown scored 11 of his team’s last 14 in the final 5:10 to secure a 3-1 series lead.

“I’ve always thought that Bruce is like a Swiss army knife,” Larrañaga told The Post. “Whatever the coach is going to ask you to do, the first thing you have to do is have a great attitude toward that. … He’s been so upbeat.”

The specific tool deployed on the Swiss army knife has varied from team to team. But how Denver saw Brown is the same way Larrañaga did. From the time Miami recruited him and through two seasons for the Hurricanes, Brown remembers, “he would just always say that I was going to be a point guard if I wanted to play in the league.”

In high school and at the beginning of his first college season, he played the three. Then Larrañaga started transitioning him to the one. After the 2016-17 season, they had a long conversation about whether Brown should enter the NBA draft as a one-and-done or return to school. The verdict: Brown wanted to improve his handles and point guard skills.

Detroit Pistons executive Ed Stefanski scouted a Miami practice the next season. Brown had gotten out his slump, but now he was out for the year. While he was sidelined for a broken foot during Stefanski’s visit, Larrañaga advocated for his injured star.

“I don’t know if Bruce will get to the second round,” he remembers saying, “but if he does, you guys have a couple of second-round picks. This guy is going to be really, really good, and his best position in the NBA is likely to be the point guard position.”

Larrañaga pitched Brown as being able to find the open man, guard one through three and switch onto anybody. Don’t draft him as a two guard expecting him to drain 3-pointers, Larrañaga warned. That part of his game needed growth. The Pistons grabbed Brown 42nd overall.

“I didn’t work out with Detroit at all,” Brown said, “so that had to work.”

The groundwork was laid for Brown to eventually land in Denver as a second-unit guard, but only after taking a few literal bumps. With the Brooklyn Nets, he served mostly as a screener for Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and other ball-dominant players. Brown said before the Finals that “nobody really wanted me” afterward in free agency because he was unproven as a guard. He never envisioned himself as a small-ball center, even if he had the adaptability to pull it off.

“In Brooklyn, that’s when I had to (watch highlights) the most,” he told The Post.

Larrañaga watched from afar and admired how tactfully Brown handled that job. But he understood more than most that screening wasn’t how or why his pupil had made it to the league. Sacrifices had already been made. In March 2018, Miami team doctors cleared Brown to return from his broken foot just in time for the NCAA Tournament. But Larrañaga shut it down, fearing reinjury after weeks without live practice.

“He told me I wasn’t coming back at all unless we made it to the national championship,” Brown said. “He was looking out for my future. Because what if I did come back and got hurt again? So not a lot of college coaches would do that for you.”

Miami lost in the first round on a buzzer beater without Brown.

That gesture, even amid its consequences, established a faith in Brown’s professional ceiling that made this season’s achievements all the more worthwhile. And it made the venue of Brown’s Game 4 takeover feel more meaningful — for the team to put the ball in his hands, and for him to rise to the career-defining moment in the same city where his NBA career was built on point guard development and advocacy.

It was all a little too perfect. So naturally, bad timing intervened. Brown’s mentor wasn’t at Kaseya Center to witness Game 4 in-person. They texted during the week. Larrañaga was home, feeling under the weather.

Or maybe that part was even fitting, too. Larrañaga watched Brown’s moment the same way Brown will relive it before games the rest of his career.

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