Magic Proving They Can Play at High Level Against Any Opponent

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Even in the disappointment of defeat, the Orlando Magic sensed everything feeling different about Wednesday night’s game opposite the surging Denver Nuggets at the Amway Center.

It felt kinda, sorta like a playoff game, if not a high-stakes game in April that could’ve decided a postseason berth. It featured the Magic (12-13) playing a high level of basketball against a Denver (17-7) team obviously at a high level since it sits all alone atop the rugged Western Conference thanks to the NBA’s longest active winning streak. The mutual respect between the two was palatable all night even as they tried repeatedly to knock the other out with one emotional haymaker after another.

The game had a high level of skill what with both teams making better than 55 percent of their shots most of the night and the Magic drilling 20 3-pointers. It had plenty of emotion as Orlando was hit with three individual technical fouls and the crowd of 16,636 howled most of the night – along with Magic coach Steve Clifford – about a 37-8 free throw disparity. And, without question, the game had plenty of drama with there being 21 lead changes and 14 ties – six of those lead changes and five of those ties coming in the fourth quarter alone. None of the swings were more significant, of course, than when Orlando guard Terrence Ross knotted the score at 112 with 6.1 seconds left in regulation after drilling a 3-pointer off a perfectly executed out of bounds play.

Ultimately, the Magic fell 124-118 in overtime to the Nuggets when they went cold offensively in the extra period and never got a handle on stopping high pick-and-roll plays between Jamal Murray (31 points and eight assists) and Nikola Jokic (12 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds).

Despite being defeated over a loss that felt like a punch in the gut, Magic players knew there was something special and different about Wednesday night. Out of the playoffs the past six seasons, Orlando simply hasn’t hosted many high-level games like Wednesday’s featuring two teams that has something special cooking. Even though they saw their modest two-game winning streak end following a second loss of the season to Denver, many Magic players reveled in the urgency and intensity of the night.

``It was a high-scoring game and (the Nuggets) are the No. 1 team in the league right now, so there was definitely that energy to the game,’’ said Ross, who scored 17 points, grabbed three rebounds and drill three 3-pointers. ``We definitely looked at this game as one of the big games that we wanted to play in. So, it definitely had the feel like (a playoff game).’’

Added Denver head coach Mike Malone: ``Give Steve Clifford and that team credit. They did everything they could to win the game and we got lucky. We’ll take it, but we definitely got lucky.’’

Things won’t get much easier – if not more difficult – on Friday night when Orlando plays the Indiana Pacers at the Amway Center. The Pacers (14-10) have been able to hold steady despite being without standout guard Victor Oladipo (sore knee) for an extended period of time. Then there’s this issue with the Pacers for the Magic: Indiana has dominated the series of late, winning seven games in a row, 14 of the last 15 meetings and 18 of 20 since 2013. The Magic’s last win against Indiana came in March of 2016 and their last victory against the Pacers in Orlando was back on Feb. 9, 2014, another skid of seven games.

To get back on the winning track and finally dispatch the Pacers, the Magic will have to improve upon a defense that surrendered 54.9 percent shooting, 11 3-pointers and two 30-point quarters on Wednesday to the Nuggets. Still, Clifford liked how his team fought against a tough opponent all night, battled through the emotions and adversity and how it executed in the tense moments of the fourth quarter to get the game to overtime.

``We’ve been good in close games,’’ Clifford said. ``We’ve played the most close games in the league. They’re considered crunch-time games (decided by) five (points) or less and we’re 5-2. We’ve now played 16 games – which is a lot – within plus-or-minus five points in the last five minutes. We’re 8-8 (in crunch-time games), so we’ve been really good in those all season.

Magic center Nikola Vucevic battled all night with Jokic, a close friend, and battered the Nuggets for 24 points, 15 rebounds and four assists. The longest-tenured player on the Magic, Vucevic has suffered through the previous six rebuilding seasons and he is desperate to get the franchise back into playoff contention. Vucevic admitted that Wednesday’s game had a distinct feel to it and he said afterward that it only made him hunger more for those going forward. Only next time, Vucevic said, the Magic want to be the ones claiming victory in a tight, back-and-forth big game with a playoff feel to it.

``It was a really competitive game, and down the stretch both teams really competed and played to win, but we just came up short,’’ Vucevic said softly in a somber Magic locker room after the game. ``It was definitely a good game to be a part of and I’m sure it would have been much better if we had won. We did put up a much better effort than we did in Denver. We lost, but at least we did some things better against them. … There were definitely things we can take from this game that will help us the next time we’re in a game like this.’’

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