For the Magic, as the season spirals out of control, and the playoffs out of reach, it feels like a constant battle of “one step forward, two steps back.” Every inch of progress is met with another disappointing run, quarter, or game right after, and tonight represented that step back, as Orlando fell 125-112 in Denver. Nikola Jokic scored a career-high 30 points to go with 11 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. Elfrid Payton led the Magic in scoring and assists with a 20-12 night, much of that coming in the fourth quarter comeback effort. The defense continues to be the problem for the Magic, as they allowed the Nuggets to shoot 58% from the field. While several Nuggets were impressive, especially Jokic, much of that falls on Orlando’s lifeless effort and lackadaisical decision making.
The first quarter was all about offense. While the recent trend has been for the starters to blow out their opposition early, only to have the bench throw the whole thing away, the opposite was the case early on Monday. The starters kept things about even for a while, with the game tied at 16 after just a few minutes, but the Nuggets quickly started pulling away, mostly on the back of Jokic’s 16 points. Nobody had an answer for him on the Magic, neither one-on-one nor in pick-and-rolls. After going down 31-20, the bench unit put together a 9-2 run to close the lead, including a 3-pointer from Mario Hezonja. For the Magic, the scoring was distributed about as evenly as it could have been, with 9 different players earning points, but nobody more than 5. After a high-octane first quarter, Orlando trailed 36-39.
The two things kept things tight for much of the second, exchanging shot after shot in a defenseless first half. Augustin was the primary scorer for the Magic, hitting several midrange shots off the dribble. Jokic continued to torch the Magic, especially in the two-man game with either Emmanuel Mudiay or Jameer Nelson, bringing his first half total to 22. It was all the Magic could do to keep pace, never taking the lead, though the game was essentially tied with two minutes left in the half. The Nuggets quickly went on a tear, closing out the quarter strong to take a 69-62 lead over Orlando.
The third is when the wheels fell off the Magic schoolbus, when the defense continued to falter, but the offense was unable to sustain itself. The rest of Denver got into the scoring game, with five players reaching double-digit scoring before the end of the third, including 12 from former Magic guard Jameer Nelson (8 in the quarter). Orlando allowed Denver to score at least 30 points in all three quarters, shooting 62.7% along the way. Meanwhile, Orlando shot just 10/23 in the quarter, and that combination of lackluster offense and lazy defense led to their worst quarter yet, and a 100-83 deficit after three.
Somehow, Orlando looked like they might pull the game back, despite going down by more than 20 points. Payton summoned the aggressiveness that brought him so much success early against the Jazz, scoring 14 points in the quarter to bring Orlando within 11. Unfortunately, they could never bring themselves to play any substantial defense, and when they did force misses, the big men looked totally uninterested in even trying to box out, leading to several backbreaking putbacks. That put the game out of reach for the Magic, who have one more game remaining on this frustrating road trip, Wednesday against the Pelicans.