The Denver Nuggets came out firing in their matchup with the Orlando Magic. They were leading 15-10 less than six minutes into the game while shooting a crip 5-of-8 from the floor, including a perfect 3-of-3 from 3-point range. Coming out of a timeout, the Nuggets slowed down a bit in the scoring department, and the Magic had gotten back to within two over the next three minutes before taking the lead on a Paolo Banchero free throw. The Nuggets surged into a slight lead down the stretch, but their second unit was struggling on the offensive end, and the two teams ended the first quarter tied at 28 following the late burst from the Orlando bench.

In the second quarter, we saw more of what we saw to end the first. The Nuggets’ second unit was struggling to gain a lead on either end, and the two sides were mostly trading baskets for much of the quarter. Halfway through the period, the two sides were separated by one point and trading the lead back and forth like they were playing catch in the backyard. After trading baskets with neither side able to gain any semblance of an advantage, the Nuggets got a small run to go their way as they had a four-point lead with under two minutes remaining in the first half. After trading baskets, the Nuggets closed the half strong, and they were leading 62-56 due in large part to their strong showing from 3-point range where they were 9-of-20 from downtown compared to 3-of-14 for the Magic. The big point to watch in the second half was going to be the bench battle. The Nuggets’ bench was being outscored 9-29, and that was going to wear the starters out over the course of the second half.

To start the second half, the Magic came out swinging. They had outscored the Nuggets 17-10 through the first six minutes, and the Nuggets’ starters looked almost shellshocked at how quickly their lead had evaporated. The main thing that was scary to think about for Denver was the way their second unit performed in the first half. Denver’s lead was almost entirely carried by their starters in the first half, but they were getting beat in the early going of the half. After a few minutes where neither side could score, the Nuggets tied the game up at 77 before immediately giving up a basket to Cole Anthony on the other end of the floor. With under 2:40 remaining in the quarter, the game was tied at 79, and a critical stretch of the game was coming up with Nikola Jokic on the bench for what was likely going to be his final rest of the night. With Reggie Jackson as the lone starter on the floor for Denver, could they tread water or gain a lead for when the starters returned to the floor in the fourth quarter? The answer to that question was yes. After being tied at 79 when Jokic and other starters went to the bench, Denver outscored Orlando nine to three over that final two and a half minutes to take an 88-82 lead heading into the final period.

After finishing that third period strong, the Nuggets’s bench came out slow to start the final quarter. Less than two minutes into the quarter, Denver’s lead had been chiseled down to two, and they were struggling to find any positive signs of momentum. When Jokic reentered the game with just over nine minutes remaining, the game was tied at 96 with all of the momentum on the side of Orlando. Over the next four minutes, neither side could generate any separation. The Nuggets gained a bit of an advantage, but they couldn’t get a stop on the defensive end, and they would give the lead right back. The Magic won a hotly-contested couple of minutes in the middle part of the quarter, and Denver was fighting against a wave of momentum in the final minutes of the game. With just under 2:45 remaining in the game, Aaron Gordon nailed a two-foot shot to give Denver a one-point lead. Denver immediately gave that lead back as they continued to struggle to get stops. Banchero knocked down a triple that rolled around every part of the rim, and the Magic were leading by three with under 90 seconds to play. Denver committed a costly 24-second violation with just under 60 seconds, and they needed a stop more than ever. Denver got that stop, and they had the ball with 27.3 seconds remaining as they trailed 118-115. Out of the timeout, Jokic missed his shot, but he immediately tipped in his miss. The Magic nailed a pair of free throws, and the Nuggets were in the same spot they were 13 seconds prior down by three. The Magic gave up another layup to Jokic, but they made both free throws again. Orlando stole away the inbounds pass, and that was your ballgame with the Nuggets falling 124-119 despite the herculean effort from Jokic.

Stat Leaders

Points: Nikola Jokic – 30

Assists: Jokic – 12

Rebounds: Jokic – 13

Player of the Game: Nikola Jokic – 30 points, 12 assists, 13 rebounds, 12-of-18 field goal, 1-of-2 3-point, 5-of-5 free throw