Magic Seek Revenge Tonight Against West-Leading Nuggets

Orlando lost to Denver on Nov. 23 in Mile High City
by John Denton

ORLANDO – The last time the suddenly surging Orlando Magic were humbled in a game and completely run off the floor by a foe, they were standing opposite the Denver Nuggets and superstar center Nikola Jokic the day after Thanksgiving.

In the time since that head-scratching 112-87 defeat in the Mile High City, the Magic have righted themselves by winning two games in a row and three of the last five – all of which have come in impressive fashion on the road.

Now, as they head back to the Amway Center for the first time in more than two weeks, the Magic (12-12) go into tonight’s rematch against Denver (16-7) knowing they need to make a few changes from that first lopsided meeting against the Nuggets.

``Compared to that first game, pretty much everything,’’ Magic center Nikola Vucevic, deadpanned when asked about what needed to change before facing the Nuggets again tonight just after 7 (TV: Fox Sports Florida). ``It’s that simple.’’

Stopping Denver has been anything but simple of late. Since a stretch when the Nuggets surprisingly stumbled, losing six of seven from Nov. 7-19, they have ripped off six consecutive victories. Four of those wins have come on the road and in difficult venues (at Toronto, Oklahoma City, Portland and Minnesota). They moved to the top of the West when they whipped the best in the East, the Raptors, in dramatic fashion on Monday in Canada.

The most lopsided victory in Denver’s win streak, of course, was against the Magic on Nov. 23. That night, Orlando’s offense ground to a halt and its defense wasn’t much better as Denver dominated the second quarter and led by 13 at the half. Things would only get worse in the second half as the Magic continued to miss shots and the Nuggets pulled away behind reserves Trey Lyles (22 points) and Mason Plumlee (15 points and 11 rebounds).

Jokic, a blossoming star, is the key figure in Denver’s offense. Against the Magic, he made just two of seven field goals and missed all three of his 3-point shots, but he still had a major impact on the game by grabbing 10 rebounds, handing out 11 assists and swiping two steals.

Jokic established himself as an early candidate for the NBA’s MVP award on Monday with a triple-double performance (23 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds) against the Raptors. With the score tied at 103, Jokic had the final three points on a free throw and a clutch basket in the closing seconds for the victory. Despite the scoring prowess of Jokic – who is averaging 16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.5 assists a game – it’s his passing and work on the offensive glass that worries the Magic most.

``There’s two things, to me, and that’s the cutting baskets, which they are so good at, because Jokic is really a point guard in the open floor because the lane is open, and they’re terrific playing off of him,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``And then the rebounding game is a factor. They’re a terrific offensive rebounding team and we didn’t do a good job with that in Denver.’’

Since that humbling loss, the Magic have been up to almost every challenge before them. They responded to the Denver defeat by toppling LeBron James and the Lakers in Los Angeles two days later. Then, following crushing defeats to Golden State and Portland, the Magic rebounded again with road wins in Phoenix and Miami to even their record at 3-3 over this six-game run of road games.

The Magic played with great resiliency on Tuesday night, responding to a seven-point deficit early in the third quarter with a 59-40 second-half burst. Orlando got 16 third-quarter points from Aaron Gordon (20 points and 13 rebounds in the game), while Vucevic (19 points and 10 rebounds), Terrence Ross (19 points and two 3-pointers) and Jonathan Isaac (12 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block) were also good on both ends of the floor in the second half.

``We’re a close bunch, we stick together on the road and we stick together through adversity,’’ said Ross, who drilled three drawn-up shots out of timeouts on Tuesday night. ``That’s the biggest part and the rest of it is just taking care of itself right now.’’

Now, the Magic have to try and repeat the feat at home and against a Denver team that recently dominated them. Such is life in the NBA, where the next challenge is never too far away, Clifford said.

``We’re 6-6 (on the road) and now we’ve got to play better at home,’’ Clifford said after the rousing road win in Miami. ``We’ve been a lot better on the road than we have been at home. It’s the NBA – you have a good win and you feel good and then (the schedule-makers) say, `Come on back home, Denver is waiting.’ We’re going to have to be ready. Hopefully (on Wednesday) if we can play that same kind of defense (as Tuesday in Miami), we’ll give ourselves a chance.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.