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Nuggets 119, Magic 109: Tired legs doom Orlando as AG gets the last laugh

Outgunned and under the weather, the Magic ultimately couldn’t hold on after a hot first half

Orlando Magic v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Fresh off a near record beatdown at the hands of the Jazz, a battered and bruised Magic outfit came into Denver tired at the end of a long trip. Although it wouldn’t be apparent through the opening half, those heavy legs eventually gave way down the stretch, the Nuggets running out comfortable winners in the closing stages. Still, there were plenty of positive takeaways for Orlando in a game in which they were heavy underdogs.

We often joke about the revenge game in professional sports, but in the contest’s opening minutes it was a phenomenon on full display. RJ Hampton got things started against his old employer with a baseline jumper and long range bomb, before Aaron Gordon countered with 5 points of his own. The pair continued to trade baskets, with AG pushing his own personal tally to 12 and Hampton getting another bucket and a smooth assist before the teams went to an early timeout on the back of a Chuma Okeke three pointer that put the Magic in front by one, 17-16.

Orlando continued to control the action throughout the remainder of the first quarter in what had turned into a surprisingly chippy affair. Wendell Carter Jr’s physicality was evidently frustrating Nikola Jokic, who retaliated after a swallowed whistle with a swinging arm that struck an innocent Terrence Ross. That seemed to fire up the Human Torch, whose own aggression was evident in the way he attacked the rim. The teams largely traded baskets through the period’s closing minutes before a strong three-point play from Okeke re-established some breathing room, the first quarter coming to an end with the Magic leading 29-23.

Orlando continued to benefit from a surprising accuracy from deep, stretching their advantage to a dozen early in the second as first Mo Bamba and then James Ennis drilled long triples. Their 7-11 mark from beyond the arc accounted for more than half of the team’s point at this stage of the game, a stark contrast to the 6 points on 2-9 shooting that the Nuggets had mustered. If it weren’t for some soft defensive rebounding gifting Denver a series of second chance opportunities — an absurd 11 extended possessions through the game’s first 16 minutes — the margin could have been even greater.

The sweet shooting continued for the Magic as the game wound its way towards halftime. Bamba and Carter Jr combined for a series of smooth long jumpers, while Ross got an absolutely absurd floater over the backboard to go while also drawing a foul. T-Ross and Jokic continued their running battle, with another tangle up again igniting the Human torch’s intensity. Although it resulted in some purposeful attack with the ball in hand, it also had the unintended effect of getting the Magic’s most important shooter in foul trouble; Ross joined Bamba on the bench with three first half fouls and the game’s complexion shifted a little as the Nuggets capitalized through a pair of quick buckets to Michael Porter Jr. Time out Magic, the scoreboard now showing 50-38 in Orlando’s favor.

Denver looked to counter coming out of the huddle, and they looked to be onto something when they started to locate their long distance stroke. A Porter Jr triple cut the Magic’s lead to seven, but that’s where it would end. Across the half’s final 2:31 Orlando proceeded to rattle of an 11-0 run, fueled by disruptive defense, swift outlet passes from Okeke, and some big shot making by Chasson Randle, Carter Jr and Okeke again. It was five straight possessions that bore fruit, with only a desperate three-quarter court heave from Okeke failing to find the bottom of the net. When the dust settled it was 65-47 Orlando’s way, a dominant second quarter pushing the advantage out to a game-high 18 points.

It was Okeke leading the way for the Magic at the main break, a personal tally of 13 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 stocks on 5-9 shooting from the field. He was backed up by

Ross, who had 11 points, 3 assists and a pair of stocks, as well as 9 to Hampton and 8 to each of Carter Jr and Bamba. Ultimately it was a lead built on shooting accuracy, with the Magic outpacing the Nuggets from the field by a rate of 55.3% to 39.1%, including five more makes from deep that offset the sizable offensive rebounding advantage enjoyed by Denver.

The Nuggets came out in the third noticeably more locked in, offering more resistance defensively while moving the ball more crisply on offense. It paid off, with Jamal Murray and Gordon both racking up 5 quick points as Denver opened up the quarter on a 10-2 run, reducing the Magic’s advantage to 67-57 on a tough reverse finish by AG.

The playmaking of Jokic continued to give Orlando fits, but offensive contributions across the lineup helped the team keep its nose in front. Ennis had 5 quick points on back-to-back possessions, Okeke and WCJ continued to play an effective two-man game, and Ross nailed another long bomb immediately after checking back in. When Hampton managed to steal an offensive rebound, relocate to the corner and drill a wide-open triple it was Orlando by 11, up 80-69 as the teams went to another timeout.

Denver responded during the quarter’s closing minutes, aided by some sloppy ball protection by the Magic. Jokic was able to generate a series of easy looks for his teammates, while Orlando’s offense stagnated as they started to settle for mid-range jumpers. A pair of Jokic free throws sliced the margin to 80-77, Orlando’s lead that was once eighteen down now to just three. Unfortunately it wasn’t where the whittling would end, with some cheap fouls and the continued surrendering of offensive rebounds allowing the Nuggets to claim their first lead since the first quarter. Ross got a final jumper to go at the close, meaning the Magic would go into the final frame with a slender advantage, up just 86-85 with twelve to play.

The teams largely traded both shots and the lead over the next few minutes, with neither side able to seize the ascendancy. The Magic’s lack of playmaking was starting to really hurt, with too many sequences generating little other than a contested look for Ross. The return of Jokic opened things up for Denver some, a quick 6-2 spurt giving them back the lead by a margin of 99-96.

A pair of good finishes by Carter Jr allowed the Magic to once again nudge their noses ahead, before an unfortunate turnover by the big man gifted Jamal Murray an easy look in the open court. The big man made up for it on the very next sequence when he dropped in another strong finish at the hoop, but another AG cut and finish followed by an MPJ offensive glass put-back pushed the Nuggets out by 3 again. A Murray triple then made the difference six, a margin that the Magic would never reel in. Some airballs from distance indicated that the legs were officially gone for Orlando, the result of an injured, sick and under-manned side finally succumbing at the end of a long road trip. The final score was 119-109 Denver’s way, with AG securing the last laugh.

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: Chuma Okeke — the only goal for the Magic over the final 22 games should be to see what they’ve got in the young guys, and if tonight was any indication they’re onto something special with Okeke. Finished with 19, 7 and 5 as well as 3 stocks and a pair of triples for good measure, all the while looking composed beyond his years.

Second star: RJ Hampton — opened the evening in blistering fashion, playing with an obvious chip on his shoulder in his revenge game. Put up 16 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals, as well as some fearless forays through the painted area.

Third star: Wendell Carter Jr — it’s quickly becoming apparent that WCJ is a different breed of center than the Magic have recently been accustomed to. He was strong inside at both ends of the floor (although the defensive rebounding could have been tighter), racking up a personal tally of 16 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 stocks.

It wasn’t the near 50 point waxing inflicted by the Jazz, but falling from a long way in front still stings. The Magic will now look to regroup on Wednesday against Washington.