The Magic started the game like a team that knows it’s about to be dismantled. They finished it like a group that was going down swinging in what could be their last hurrah.
But the hole they dug themselves into in the first half was simply too deep to overcome, despite a near career-high by Evan Fournier amid trade rumors, as the Magic fell to the Nuggets, 110-99.
Struggling offensively is expected for this group, but it was a lethargic effort on the defensive end early on that allowed Denver to take a quick lead. The Nuggets had their way with the Magic inside in the first quarter, outscoring the Magic 20-4 in the paint, grabbing four offensive rebounds and shooting 58.3 percent from the field. At the other end, the Magic shot just 30 percent, making only 1 of 8 attempts from deep in the quarter, and trailed 30-15 heading into the second.
The lead reached 21 early in the second quarter before Fournier hit back-to-back threes to pull the Magic within 40-25 with just over seven minutes remaining in the half.
Fournier scored 10 points in the quarter but, outside of that, turnovers continued to pile up for the Magic, leading to 15 fast break points in the quarter for the Nuggets.
The Magic’s tenth turnover of the first half came when Will Barton tipped away a Chuma Okeke’s pass attempt on a drive-and-kick, leading to an easy dunk at the other end to put the Nuggets up 58-37. Nikola Jokic put the finishing touches on Orlando’s ugly first half after he was left all alone and drained a straightaway three at the buzzer to send the Magic into the break down 61-39.
That lead was built despite the Nuggets uncharacteristically struggling from three (4-for-13) and barely getting to the free throw line (1-for-2). Jokic led the way with 16 first-half point as the Nuggets tallied 42 points in the paint (on 21-for-29 shooting) and shot 56 percent in the half. The Magic shot just 36.6 percent in the half.
The lead briefly reached 24 before ball movement improved for the Magic in the third and they went on a 10-0 run in the opening minutes, capped by a Fournier fadeaway off the glass, to cut the Nuggets’ lead to 63-49 just three minutes into the quarter. Fournier later picked off an errant pass by Jokic and raced downcourt for the lay-in plus the foul for a three-point play that cut the lead down to 11.
The Orlando run reached 20-4 when Michael Carter-Williams kicked it out to Gordon for an open three to pull the Magic within 67-59 with 6:39 left in the third. The Magic, after shooting 48 percent and turning the ball over just once in the quarter, trailed 80-69 after three.
Orlando opened the fourth on a 6-0 run, with Al-Farouq Aminu finding Khem Birch for a dunk to get the Magic as close as five points at 80-75.
The Magic continued to linger, with MCW converting a layup plus the foul (missed FT) - after he turned the ball over, got called for a technical, and then whistled for two personal fouls - to make it 92-86 with 6:06 left. Vucevic, in what was a rough shooting night for the All-Star, had a chance to make it a one-possession game but missed a three, and Jokic followed with a jumper to put the Nuggets up eight.
The Magic looked to have one final run in them after an MCW three cut the lead to six, but Michael Porter Jr. followed with a pair of threes to increase the lead to 104-92 with 2:33 remaining, sealing the victory for Denver.
Jokic finished with his 12th triple-double of the season: 28 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists. Murray added 21 points, Porter Jr. had 18 and Barton had 17 as the Nuggets had 60 points in the paint, shot 49.5 percent in the game and still grabbed 13 offensive rebounds.
Fournier, in what could be his final game in a Magic uniform, fell one point shy of matching his career-high, finishing with a season-high 31 points on 10-for-18 shooting, including 5 for 12 from deep.
Gordon added 13 points on 6-for-13 shooting with 6 assists and 3 rebounds.
Vucevic was held to 18 points and 7 rebounds as he shot just 8-for-25 from the field. Farouq-Aminu had what was easily his best game in a Magic uniform, setting season-highs with 17 points and 10 rebounds (first double-double with Orlando), as well as a career-high six assists.
The Magic have have now lost 11 of their last 12 games, having failed to reach the 100-point mark in five of their last six matchups. Things don’t get any easier as they complete a back-to-back on Wednesday against the 28-13 Phoenix Suns as the trade deadline looms.
We’ll see if the Magic’s starting lineup looks any different when they take the court for the opening tip.