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Denver 91, Orlando 87: Magic go cold, come up short

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Fultz got the start, but the Nuggets repeatedly got to the free-throw line as they ice a close one against the Magic

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Both Denver and Orlando came into tonight’s game looking to soothe the sting of humiliation. The Magic were blown out at home by the Bucks, falling by a margin of 32 in a game in which they shot just 37.4% from the field and lost the fast break points battle by an astonishing 34 points. Similarly, the Nuggets were last-start losers, responsible for handing the Pelicans their first win of the young season and forcing their coach MIke Malone to call the team’s effort “disappointing” and “embarrassing”. Which side would be able to right the ship, at least temporarily?

A change to the starting lineup saw Markelle Fultz join the first five, a move that paid immediate dividends. The team came out with an extra bounce in their step, with Fultz making limited-but-effective contributions and Nikola Vucevic leading the way offensively. The switch also empowered Evan Fournier, who was tasked with initiating much of the offense and leveraging the 2-5 pick-and-roll. Active defense and patient offense saw the Magic get out to an early six-point lead, up 20 to 14 and forcing a Denver timeout.

The rotation changes also provided better balance for the bench squad in the opening quarter. Al-Farouq Aminu was the first man up, followed shortly by DJ Augustin and Terrence Ross. The threat of outside shooting provided better spacing, while the experienced heads ensured steadiness and direction. Augustin and Aaron Gordon both showed aggression with the ball in hand, helping the Magic extend their lead to double digits before ultimately going into the quarter-time break up 26-17.

The defensive energy established early continued in the second quarter, with Aminu, Ross and Mo Bamba all displaying their disruptive capabilities. The turnovers and stops at this end fueled the transition game, with AG in particular getting out hard and generating fast break opportunities. He and Isaac also continued to pester the offensive boards, extending possessions and helping the Magic to keep the scoreboard ticking over.

Despite the noticeably improved effort and energy Orlando weren’t ever able to entirely seize the ascendancy. The offense bogged down some in the second (just 19 points in the quarter), and inaccurate shooting from deep (3-14 for the half) stopped the side from extending their advantage at key moments. Still, the defense remained stout, restricting the Nuggets to just 32% shooting from the field and holding their star big-man, Nikola Jokic, to a very quiet four points. A heads-up play by Fultz with only seconds remaining saw him secure a valuable and-one opportunity, pushing the Magic to a 45-40 halftime lead.

The reconfigured starting five were once again in sync on offense to open the third. Gordon and Fultz showed great awareness of each other on consecutive plays, each setting the other up for a finish at the hoop. Fournier was also starting to feel it, with a nice feed to Gordon following up a sweet stroke from deep for his first three-point make on the night. Denver were forced to call another time out just three-and-a-half minutes into the period after the lead swelled to 8, a figure that would have been considerably larger if not for a pair of Jokic triples that helped the Nuggets stay in touch.

Frustratingly, the Magic suffered through one of their familiar stretches of offensive frigidity across the game’s next 8 minutes. A 12-2 run in Denver’s favour saw the foe snatch the lead for the first time, with the deficit bridged on the back of aggressive forays to the hoop by guard Jamal Murray and a parade of free throws given up by tiring Orlando defenders. At the other end the Magic continued to miss: jumpers, layups, floaters, free throws, wide open threes, even dunks. No matter the shot, Orlando managed to miss it. In fact, if it weren’t for a single made free throw by Bamba (who, incredibly, fouled out before the final intermission and in just ten minutes of court time) the only player to trouble the scorer in the quarter’s final eight-and-a-half minutes was Gordon. When the dust settled it was the wrong end of a 19-5 run and a six-point Denver lead.

And yet, the Magic were able to get right back into the contest. A seven-point Terrence Ross spurt coupled with energetic defense at the other end let the team lock the scores at 81 on the back of a Vucevic three. A smattering of deflections, steals and blocks helped offset some wonky pick-and-roll coverage, with the team also doing a much better job of cleaning the defensive boards and refraining from fouling. However, a near-impossible turnaround rainbow from Jokic and a punctuating dunk from Jamal Murray basically sealed the result for Denver.

Orlando made a handful of buckets late but couldn’t reel in the Nuggets. Circumstances forced them to send the opposition to the line, where they made enough free throws to keep the Magic at bay. In the end they attempted 39 free throws to just 11 for Orlando, a differential that simply couldn’t be overcome. When the final buzzer sounded it was 91-87, a low-scoring, slow-paced contest filled with ugly shooting by both sides.

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: Aaron Gordon — he wasn’t perfect, but this was the version of AG that Magic fans will be hoping to see more of in the weeks to come. He generated the majority of his points with energy plays, while also being noticeably more engaged and effective defensively. He finished with 21, 9 and 3.

Second star: Nikola Vucevic — Vooch was an efficient beast in the first half, going into halftime almost perfect from the field and having limited the impact of his direct opposition. He cooled off after the break, but still hit some big shots in the fourth to give the Magic a chance.

Third star: Jonathan Isaac — while his boxscore won’t jump out and his offense remains a work-in-progress, there’s no denying the defensive presence of Orlando’s young forward. He was a whirling dervish today, racking up 3 steals, 2 blocks, and all manner of disruptive contributions.

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For the Magic it’s been back-to-back games against two sides who expect to be among their conference’s elite. They were found wanting on the first leg, but bounced back tonight in a more acceptable effort. Still, moral victories count for naught, and this is one Orlando could have won with better offensive execution. The grind continues Tuesday night in Oklahoma.