The Denver Nuggets looked like a team playing their second game in as many nights on the road. After a run and gun affair against the Miami Heat last night, Denver came out lifeless against the Orlando Magic and found themselves behind big early on. They would get some energy from their bench in the second half to make a game of it but ultimately fatigue and the Orlando Magic would win out. Big games from Evan Fournier, Victor Oladipo and Jason Smith (you read that right) fueled Orlando to a victory 116-110.
The game opened with Nikola Jokic facilitating on offense for the Nuggets while Aaron Gordon was knocking down jumpers for the Magic. Each team was scoring easily to open the quarter but the Magic weren't being as careless with basketball and gained an early advantage. Orlando was hitting from three point land early on as well, including Gordon who is shooting under 30% from beyond the arc this season. Joffrey Lauvergne provided some punch off the bench as the quarter drew to a close but the Nuggets sloppy play and poor defense ultimately led to them trailing 32-25 after one.
The bench opened the second quarter with Will Barton seeking to get to the foul line and Lauvergne getting points in the post. Barton for the most part was doing the heavy lifting for the Nuggets on the offensive end. However, Denver continued to play poor defense and Fournier was making the most of it which kept Orlando in front. When the starters checked back in Denver still trailed by about a half dozen and it was Oladipo's turn to start knocking down easy shots. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, the close of the quarter didn't get any better and the Magic went into the half with sixty-one points and a fifteen point lead.
Gary Harris opened the second half with a three pointer for Denver but both teams engaged in a series of turnovers out of the gate. Around the eight minute mark the Nuggets made a mini run to try and get back in the game but Fournier once again was there for the Magic to keep their lead hovering around the 15 point margin. Emmanuel Mudiay hit a three at the half way mark of the third quarter which marked his first points in the game and then he hit another to close the lead to twelve and there was a slight glimmer of hope for Denver. The Magic responded with an Oladipo and one and a Brandon Jennings three pointer but a strong close to the quarter by the Nuggets on the backs of D.J. Augustin and Lauvergne left them trailing by only six.
Augustin opened the fourth quarter by getting fouled on a three point shot and hitting all three free throws and the Nuggets hovered in the trailing by 3-6 points zone for a few minutes. However, as the game neared the midway point of the final quarter too many second chance points and too many fouls allowed the Magic to push the lead back out to double digits. Former CSU Ram Smith had several buckets for the Magic down the stretch but the Nuggets made a final push with about three minutes left to go in the game when a pair of Jokic free throws narrowed Orlando's lead to just five. However, a pair of foul calls against Denver and a technical foul on Augustin put the nail in the coffin.
Key match up: Aaron Gordon vs Kenneth Faried
Faried didn't have his best game (none of the Nuggets did) and Gordon was able to score at will (all of the Magic did). Perhaps the Nuggets should have known it wasn't their night when Gordon opened the game knocking down three point shots. He also had a reverse dunk early in the game that reminded everyone why he was in the dunk contest. Faried just didn't bring his usual energy and up tempo play and it ended up hurting him tonight. Coach Michael Malone seemed to notice this as well and Faried was limited to just fifteen minutes. Gordon would end the night with sixteen points after he did most of his damage in the first quarter.
Key thing to watch for: Energy
As feared, Denver came out sluggish in the game and paid a price early. Give the Magic credit, they were having a good night shooting but the lead they built early on was mainly due to Denver's lackadaisical defense and sloppy execution on offense. It was easy to see Denver's physical fatigue in their reduced movement and slow close outs but their mental fatigue was also evident in the plethora of turnovers that were passes slipping through their hands or bad screening fouls, or traveling violations etc. Augustin gave Denver a burst of energy in the late third quarter but by the time the Nuggets made a game of it the Magic had just enough juice to keep the Nuggets at bay and get the W.
Closing thought: Mama said there will be games like this
There is a reason the Nuggets historically play very poorly in Orlando and the reason is South Beach. Denver will almost always play Miami and Orlando on back to back nights and when you throw in all there is to do in Florida plus the fact that the team generally loses two hours when they get there its easy to see how the deck is stacked against them. Honestly it really would have been a bigger upset than it looks if the Nuggets had been able to pull this one out. Mudiay in particular struggled to get going early tonight. Hopefully this first experience of the Florida two step is a learning one for Mudiay and the rest of Denver's young core.
Box score via ESPN.com