Road trip. SEGABABA. Mile High. Big run. Scoring drought. Nikola Jokic. Jamal Murray. Game over.
It was a sloppy start for the Magic in the game’s opening quarter. Defensively the team was a mess, with Nikola Jokic picking the interior defense apart with some pinpoint passing from the top of the arc. Orlando couldn’t account for either the penetration or the relentless back cuts, with Denver taking full advantage and scoring 20 of their first 22 points in the paint (the others were a pair of free throws). Nikola Vucevic was able to offset this somewhat by manning Jokic up beyond the arc, but the wings continued to have trouble accounting for the counterparts when in motion.
The offense was also clunky early, with little movement and some careless turnovers making things difficult. Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba all missed shots close to the hoop, and the proceedings were starting to feel like ‘one of those games’. Eventually, however, the Magic were able to steady behind some aggressive play by Markelle Fultz and Michael Carter-Williams; the pair attacked the hoop with authority, including a nice drop pass from Fultz for a hammer finish by MCW that pushed Orlando into the lead. A late flurry of three-point makes by Terrence Ross and DJ Augustin helped them maintain this, ultimately going into the first break with a 32-27 advantage.
The bench heavy unit that opened the second maintained this gap, largely behind the play of Augustin. He drove hard when Denver hedged the side pick-and-roll which freed up Bamba for an easy finish, before using a nice hesitation dribble in transition to generate a dunk for Gordon. He also employed probing dribble penetration to consistently find teammates for open threes, although they failed to knock many of these down. The crafty veteran continued his strong play from the previous contest, and when the half closed his 13 points, 3 assists and 2 rebounds paced the team.
Perhaps the most interesting stretch of the quarter came when Steve Clifford went to a lineup featuring three ostensible point guards, with Augustin, Fultz and Carter-Williams taking the floor together alongside Vucevic and Isaac (and later Gordon). The five-man unit was part of a larger 21-5 run by the Magic, including a 12-0 spurt that extended Orlando’s lead to 16. With Denver playing a little smaller themselves it meant they were able to match up effectively on defense while also leaning on a lineup of ball handlers and incisive off-ball cutters. This configuration also created space for Vuevic to roll into and take advantage of, which he did to the tune of 16, 5 and 2 at the main break. When the teams headed for the halftime oranges the Magic had built a 15-point lead on the back of some smart in-game adjustments, up 60-45 at the break.
Orlando started the third in a hurry, extending their advantage to 19 on the back of points in the paint and Fournier’s first triple of the night. However, that was the end of the good news. They struggled to contain Paul Millsap, who took advantage of repeated mismatches with Fultz as he bullied his way to 10 points in the quarter’s first five minutes (and 12 overall). His scoring outburst was part of a larger 24-0 run by the Nuggets, who completely wiped away the lead the Magic had worked so hard to build. When the dust settled Orlando went 6:26 without a score, missing 13 straight shots before a Bamba put back briefly halted the indignity. They ultimately dropped the quarter by a margin of 23, and went into the final intermission down 84-76.
Neither team was able to claim the ascendancy in the early going of the fourth, a fact that played into Denver’s favor. The sides largely traded baskets, with the Magic facing an 8 point deficit heading into the game’s final 6 minutes. It was at this point that Markelle Fultz made his presence felt. He started by draining a nice little fadeaway in the lane to cut the margin to 6. On the next possession he gathered the defensive rebound before going the length of the court and finishing at the rack. When Gordon blocked Millsap and then found Vucevic for a soft finish it was a 2 point game and a Denver timeout, the Magic a chance of getting back into a game they had seemingly well and truly fumbled away.
Kelle coming up with some tough finishes down the stretch. pic.twitter.com/m8c3VUXg0A— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) December 19, 2019
However, it was not to be. Fultz couldn’t find the bottom of the net when he got another attempt in the paint, and Vucevic missed a pair of open jumpers on the next two Magic possessions. Denver then pushed the lead to 10 behind some Jokic and Jamal Murray two-man play, with the pair accounting for 13 of the Nuggets’ final 15 points. When the final siren sounded it was 113-104 to Denver, the Magic left to rue another one that got away.
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: DJ Augustin — Finished the game with 18 and 7, and was almost single-handedly responsible for the second-quarter surge that looked like it had set the Magic up for an impressive upset.
Second star: Nikola Vucevic — Did a solid job in a tough matchup with Jokic, despite sadly being roasted in the game’s opening and closing minutes. Closed his account for the night with 20, 7 and 5.
Third star: Markelle Fultz — Had a relatively quiet 10 and 4 in the boxscore, but his impact on the court is consistently evident. He’s a nuisance defensively and a pest on offense, looking to take advantage of any space that presents itself in front of him. It feels like his absolute best is still to come.
That’s 8 straight losses for Orlando to Denver as they fall to 1-2 on this 4-game road trip. They’ll look to even the ledger on Friday night when they head to Portland. To do so, they’ll need resiliency and four consistent quarters. Let’s hope the team is up to it.