A slow first half and some sloppy efforts throughout ultimately doomed the Magic to a loss in the opener of their six-game road trip. The team struggled to shoot the ball in the first half, going down by a bucket at the end of the first and eventually 13 come halftime. Soft efforts defensively allowed the Nuggets to have their way inside, getting into the paint seemingly at will and crashing the offensive boards with relative impunity. When halftime sounded it was 54-41 Denver’s way.
Orlando started the second half in slightly better fashion, getting a couple of big threes early from D.J. Augustin and Aaron Gordon. This trimmed the deficit briefly to single digits, and when Evan Fournier got his first points of the night it seemed like things might be nearing a turn. But Denver were able to wrest back the momentum, even despite coach Steve Clifford’s more careful staggering of the starter’s minutes.
A Terrence Ross shooting masterclass (he made his first seven attempts, including four triples) had Orlando within a dozen at the final break, but ultimately they couldn’t do enough to make it a tight finish. Denver were able to lock down and contain Ross, and when other options dried up the Nuggets did a good job of capitalizing on mistakes and finishing on the break. The benches cleared with almost six minutes still to play, with the final score reading 112-87 when all was said and done. Let’s break it down.
Across the games opening stretch it became clear that this would be a game dominated by the Nuggets frontcourt. Paul Millsap was aggressive early, evidently sensing an ability to take advantage of Aaron Gordon’s coverage. He had 8 and 4 before the first was done, with many of the buckets coming courtesy of Nikola Jokic. Denver’s playmaking center was as advertised, reading the play effectively and continually finding teammates in scoring position. Combined with sluggish effort from the Magic it ensured the road trip was going to start with a whimper.
Size continued to matter as the first half unfurled. Denver’s backcourt went at the smaller Augustin whenever the opportunity presented itself, while also hunting out other mismatches in the post. Orlando couldn’t keep the Nuggets off the offensive boards, surrendering 6 in the first half and 12 for the game. Some of these came on long rebounds off missed threes, but most were the result of Magic players failing to box out. No matter who was lining up at the 4 and 5 for Denver they were active on the offensive glass when shots went up and it told.
Perhaps the most damning stat was Denver’s 64 total points in the paint. The Nuggets didn’t make a shot from beyond the arc until the second quarter, but it barely mattered. They routinely got high percentage shots close to the rim, often in one-on-one matchups that neutered any chance of help defense. Millsap finished with 14, Trey Lyles torched the Magic for 22, and one of the Plumlee brothers (Mason? Does it matter?) racked up a 15-11 double-double (with one finger-wagging block for good measure). Defensively Denver’s bigs also successfully hedged on just about every screen, effectively taking Orlando out of their offensive sets before they ever really began.
The last game gave us a glimpse of BIG, but tonight we saw how size can kill.
After so much recent success it was a dispiriting offensive performance by the Magic. They shot just 39% from the field in the first half, including an ice-cold 3 of 16 from deep. This was most pronounced in the backcourt, where the triumvirate of Augustin, Fournier and Jerian Grant combined for a scoreless first half. The team struggled to offset their shooting woes by getting to the line, and outside of an en fuego Ross (12 points in 11 first half minutes) there wasn’t anyone they could lean on for a timely bucket.
Things really gummed up when the all-bench unit took the floor. Although the players were clearly looking to move the ball and involve each other the fact is that it just wasn’t productive. Ball handoffs on the perimeter were easily shut down by the Nuggets, and very little action was happening in the paint or high percentage shot areas. The play lacked the crispness of recent outings.
Perhaps the most interesting revelation to come from this game is the absence of Jonathon Simmons from the rotation. Pre-game Clifford stated that he would like to be using only nine players, a move intended to create better cohesion and feel for the players. Although he got some garbage minutes, it turns out that when the game was in the balance Simmons was the man left on the outside looking in. He hasn’t had a great season to date, and it looks like he might be paying the price for his recent poor shooting and lackluster playmaking. The situation is one to monitor moving forward.
Orlando’s three stars
Hockey is a pretty great sport, so I thought I would steal one of its best little touches for my own game analysis: the three stars. Here is who caught my eye tonight.
First star: Terrence Ross — Boy, without his sweet shooting the Magic really would have been in trouble. He finished with 18 points on 7-8 from the field, with his only miss coming halfway through the fourth quarter.
Second star: Aaron Gordon — Was the team’s best passer in the first half and totalled 14, 9 and 5 for the game. Wasn’t great defensively and got caught failing to block out more than once, but that could be said of most of the team.
Third star: Nikola Vucevic — This was a down game for him considering his recent play, but he pretty consistently got good looks and was one of the team’s better rebounders on the night.
It was an ugly showing for the Magic in the first of a long six-game road trip. They’ll need to be much better when they travel to Los Angeles to take on LeBron and the Lakers in a Sunday afternoon matinee.