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Magic vs. Nuggets preview: The Aaron Gordon revenge game

The Magic take on Aaron Gordon for the first time (assuming they have enough players)

Atlanta Hawks v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

For the first time ever, the Orlando Magic will play against Aaron Gordon.

Yes, it is the AG revenge game in Denver, if you want to call it that, as Gordon and the Magic share a court for the first time since he was dealt to the Nuggets at the trade deadline on March 25....assuming the Magic have the minimum of eight available players to suit up, that is.

The game, however, will be lacking the sentimentality a reunion of such a tenured player typically generates on both sides after what was a mutual break-up, with Gordon and the Magic both in need of change. Gordon, after six-plus seasons in Orlando, requested a trade in February and expressed his satisfaction with the trade after it was completed. Much of the Magic fan base, after watching Gordon fail to meet expectations and become best known for dunks that didn’t get scored a 50, was equally as eager to grant Gordon’s request.

2014 NBA Draft Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images

The move has been beneficial for both sides. For Gordon, he has been unburdened. No more playing out of position, no more being asked to do too much, no more annual expectation of taking a leap needed for a perpetually rebuilding franchise. He is playing in the meaningful games he so desired, he has helped Denver go 3-0 since his acquisition, he has been hailed as the Nuggets’ missing piece, and Gordon’s brand has skyrocketed. OK, that last part was some small-market sarcasm with some bitterness mixed in, but the rest is all true.

The Denver Post called Gordon ”the steal of the trade deadline.”

“But within the context of the Nuggets’ roster, Gordon’s arrival has already crystallized the team as a whole. Because of Gordon’s defensive abilities - and willingness to guard opponents’ toughest matchup - there’s been a cascading effect on Denver’s ability to neutralize opponents.” - Mike Singer, Denver Post

In the three games Gordon has played, the Nuggets have posted a defensive rating of 104.3, this after posting a rating of 112.0 in the 45 games prior to his arrival.

“He put everybody back in their place where now I can guard my natural position at the two, instead of going into a lot of games undersized at the three,” Gordon’s new teammate Will Barton recently told reporters. “He takes a lot of pressure off us guarding the bigger three, and now we can switch seamlessly.”

At the offensive end, Gordon has gone from being an ill-fitting second option of sorts to a strong fourth option — behind Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — allowing him to play off the ball and focus on cutting to the basket rather than trying to create his own shot or operate with limited spacing.

CBS Sports wrote of how Gordon’s simplified role is making everything easier for the surging Nuggets.

“There could be no better encapsulation of how easy the Nuggets are making basketball for Gordon. Seven years serving as one of Orlando’s ball-handlers by default so burdened Gordon that he became known for dunks that didn’t even come during games. Denver simplified the game for him so significantly that he’s suddenly getting spoonfed those same dunks in games that actually count. The results have been staggering. The Nuggets are scoring 125 points per 100 possessions with Gordon on the floor, more than seven points higher than any offense in NBA history has posted over a full season. They’re allowing only 95.7 points per 100 possessions during his minutes. No full-season defense has matched that since 2004. Denver’s new starting five of Gordon, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton has played only 64 total minutes together... and in those minutes, they’ve outscored their opponents by 48 points.” - Sam Quinn, CBS Sports

Our friends at Denver Stiffs called the Nuggets what “might be the most talented team in the NBA after the addition of Aaron Gordon.”

“Gordon’s stats won’t blow you away from his first two games, but he truly has accepted his role and is a perfect fit within the Nuggets starting unit. In his first two games, Gordon has locked up guys like John Collins, Trae Young, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris on the defensive end of the floor. In years past, the Nuggets have struggled to guard powerhouse players in the Western Conference like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard. Well, that might no longer be such a gargantuan problem with Gordon on the roster.” - Brandon Ewing, Denver Stiffs

So, things are going quite well for Gordon in the early going out in Denver. Over his first three games, Gordon has seamlessly fit into the Denver starting unit, averaging 11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals over 28 minutes per game, while shooting 57.7 percent from the field on 8.7 attempts per (Just 25 percent on 2.7 threes per).

The Magic, meanwhile, don’t exactly have seller’s remorse — not from the Gordon trade, the Evan Fournier trade, or even the much more shocking and foundation-shattering Nikola Vucevic trade. There is a renewed sense of energy and optimism surrounding a team that now has clear direction and the opportunity to see how their new pieces fit. The return for Gordon brought R.J. Hampton, who while still incredibly raw, has shown flashes of his speed and potential. Hampton, with increased opportuity in Orlando, has already established a new career high twice in Orlando, the latest coming on Saturday in a 12-point performance against the Jazz as the 20-year-old played more minutes (30) and took more shot attempts (14) than ever before. Gary Harris, who spent his entire career with the Nuggets before being shipped to the Magic, won’t play in his initial return to Denver while recovering from a thigh sprain, but could be a valuable veteran presence and offensive addition next season in the final year of his deal.

Gordon might not see as many familiar faces as expected in his first game against the Magic, with Orlando possibly playing with the minimum eight players as they did while getting routed by the Jazz on Saturday. He likely will often come face-to-face will his successor, Chuma Okeke, who since AG’s departure is averaging 15.6 points on 50.8 percent shooting.

But outside of that, the seven players expected to be available with Michael Carter-Williams, Khem Birch and Mo Bamba all questionable with a non-COVID illness, would be Wendell Carter Jr., James Ennis, Dwayne Bacon, Chasson Randle, Terrence Ross, R.J. Hampton, and/or Otto Porter Jr. or Karim Mane, both of whom were out against the Jazz. Outside of T-Ross, not much history there for AG.

After a 46-point loss to the Jazz, the Magic could be in for another ugly night as they take on another of the league’s elite, while extremely shorthanded, while playing on the second night of a back-to-back, and while Aaron Gordon and his new teammates are out to make a post-trade statement against AG’s old team.

Who: Orlando Magic (17-32) at Denver Nuggets (30-18)

When: Sunday at 10 p.m.

Where: Ball Arena - Denver, Colorado

TV: Bally Sports Florida, NBATV