The Denver Nuggets entered the Amway Center in downtown Orlando on a roll. They had won six straight games, including road wins over the Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors, and were clicking on both ends of the court. That well oil machine stalled, but talent prevailed as the Nuggets survived an overtime scare from the Magic, and escaped with a 124-118 victory.
The starting unit—which was without Gary Harris, who is listed as day-to-day after injuring his hip in that Toronto game—came out hot, and dizzied Orlando’s competent defense with the quick ball movement we’ve come to expect from a Nikola Jokic-led team. In just ten first quarter minutes, Jokic racked up five assists as the ball flowed through him in the half court.
After falling behind 6-2 to start the game, Denver ripped of a 14-2 run and took control of a lead they would maintain for the rest of the quarter. The Nuggets assisted on nine of their 12 baskets and knocked down four of their six three-point attempts.
The Magic kept pace though, thanks to a ridiculous quarter from their talented forward Aaron Gordon, who poured in 13 points in the 12 minutes he was on the floor. Despite being kept off the free throw line entirely, the Magic put up 28 first quarter points, assisting on seven of their 12 shots, and knocking down four of their eight attempts from deep.
Denver’s bench, which has been one of the best second units in the league so far this season, struggled in their opening series. The ball movement and off ball activity the starters had displayed was absent, and Orlando capitalized on the lull. They grabbed a lead that the two teams would trade several times for the rest of the quarter.
Denver couldn’t rediscover their sharp ball movement, and the half court offense devolved into slow developing, one-on-one possessions. Orlando, a team that typically struggles to stretch the floor, shot uncharacteristically well from deep. The Magic would finish the half with eight makes on 19 attempts from three. That was enough to propel them to 52 points, despite shooting zero free throws.
The Nuggets carried a two point lead into the locker room as Jokic led the way with eight assists. Jamal Murray notched a team high 15 points, exploiting the defense’s uncertainty when guarding his pick-and-rolls with Jokic, and knocking down multiple floaters in the lane.
Denver’s winning streak has featured some complete performances, but it’s been largely defined by their stellar work on the defensive end—particularly their ability to bother three-point shooters. That wasn’t the case on Wednesday night, and Orlando continued their aerial assault to open the third quarter. Denver struggled to contain Orlando’s ball handlers in the pick and roll, and an over compensation on the help defense left shooters wide open in the corner.
Orlando knocked known six more three-pointers in the first six minutes of the second half, two of them coming from Evan Fournier.
The Magic took the lead, and stretched it to their game high of six halfway through the quarter. Michael Malone turned to his second unit for a spark, and they obliged. The bench ripped off a 9-0 run, highlighted by two clutch threes from Malik Beasley, and took back the lead. At the end of three, Denver led 88-86.
The bench continued to play well to start the final quarter, as the ball began to pop again. Monte Morris and company pushed their lead to six points, but Orlando came roaring back. The Magic’s first trip to the free throw line of the game, and two more threes from Fournier, helped them erase the deficit and grab a lead of their own as the quarter reached the halfway mark. Denver’s starters checked back in, and yet again we found ourselves asking if the Nuggets can execute down the stretch of a close game.
The starters were able to take control, forcing a shot clock violation with four minutes remaining, and stopping the bleeding from beyond the arc. With less than two minutes remaining, the Nuggets held a five point advantage. But Denver wouldn’t score for the remainder of the quarter.
Orlando’s 20th three-pointer of the night came on their last attempt in regulation—the Nuggets lost Terrence Ross on an inbounds pass with eight seconds left, and he drilled the wide open shot to tie the game at 112-112. The Nuggets called time out, and were able to manufacture a good look for Murray on the ensuing possession, but his game winning attempt rolled in-and-out at the buzzer.
Free basketball in Orlando.
Overtime got off to a sluggish start as the two teams combined for just five points in the first two minutes. The real turning point came at the two minute mark, when Fournier—who was Orlando’s best player, finishing the game with 26 points—fouled out while fighting for position down low, and drew a technical foul on his way off the floor.
Murray hit the free throw, pushing Denver’s lead to two, and then knocked down a huge three-pointer in front of Orlando’s bench on the next possession. After a miss from Ross on the other end, Jokic busted out a Dirk Nowitzki-esque fadeaway that increased the lead to seven. Denver would hold on and escape Orlando with their winning streak intact. Jokic finished with a game-high 13 assists, while Murray led all players with 31 points in 46 minutes.
The Nuggets’ road trip will take them to Charlotte next, where they’ll take on Kemba Walker and the Hornets on Friday night. That game tips off at 5:00 pm MT.