Postgame Report: Magic vs. Nuggets

by John Denton

DENVER – One game certainly doesn’t make a season, nor does it make a road trip, but sometimes it can set a distinct tone and serve as a precursor for what’s to come in the days and weeks ahead.

The Orlando Magic definitely hope that isn’t the case for them after one of their most challenging road trips of the season started with a thud on Friday in Denver – a place where they have struggled mightily in recent years and continued to do so in a sloppy and sluggish performance.

When the Magic lost early in a road trip last season in Denver, it triggered a season-killing nine-game losing skid. Orlando fell in Denver again on Friday – this time 112-87 when it couldn’t generate much offense at all outside of guard Terrence Ross’ 3-point shooting and fell apart in a lopsided fourth quarter. The defense and rebounding weren’t much better as Orlando (9-10) lost for a fifth straight time to the Nuggets (12-7) and a third consecutive time in Denver in as many years.

Needless to say, this is not how the Magic wanted to start a season that they figured would be an early-season litmus test.

``We don’t need to panic about one game, but at the same time this was a great example to show that when we play the wrong way we lost by (25); but when we play the right way, we have a chance against everybody,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who had 16 points and eight rebounds. ``If we just understand that by Sunday and get back to what worked for us in the last eight or nine games, we’ll be all right. Obviously, we didn’t start the road trip the right way, but (the Nuggets) are a good team.’’

Orlando led at 15-13 and never again the rest of the night as it shot just 40.5 percent from the floor and hit only eight of 32 3-point shots. Denver, meanwhile, turned the game into a laugher in the fourth quarter and entertained the sellout crowd at the Pepsi Center with several thunderous dunks.

Friday’s game was the Magic’s first of a nine-night, five-game road trip that will include other games against the Los Angeles Lakers (Sunday afternoon), Golden State (Monday), Portland (Wednesday) and Phoenix (Friday). Sunday’s game will be a rematch between the Magic and Lakers after Orlando whipped LeBron James and L.A. 130-117 at the Amway Center last Saturday.

``This ain’t the way you want to start a long road trip out, especially a West Coast trip,’’ said Ross, who made his first seven shots and had 18 points and four 3-pointers in just 22 minutes. ``The best thing is we can do now is come back the next game and change it around.’’

Orlando got whipped 51-37 on the glass and surrendered 23 second-chance points. That was particularly irksome to Magic coach Steve Clifford, who preached the importance of rebounding to his team after it surrendered 17 second-chance points in Tuesday’s two-point loss to Toronto. The Magic’s lack of physicality and fight were particularly galling to Clifford.

``They had three offensive rebounds in the first 4 ½ minutes where there’s just no hitting,’’ Clifford said of his message to box out better. ``I told the guys (on Friday morning) that we have guys putting a lot into a lot of areas, but if we’re not going to be more physical it’s not going to pay off. You’ve got to be willing to do the things that don’t come naturally to you. We made strides in a lot of areas, but (rebounding) comes and goes and it won’t work out if we’re not better.’’

Aaron Gordon chipped in 14 points, nine rebounds and five assists – but neither he nor Vucevic played particularly aggressive when the Magic needed them to put their imprints on the game. Jonathan Isaac, who remained in a reserve role but saw his minutes restriction raised to 25 minutes, all struggled on the offensive end. He finished with nine points, four assists and three rebounds despite making just two of 10 shots and missing all four of his 3-point tries.

``Hopefully, this shocks us and wakes us up,’’ Gordon said. ``We respond well after losses, so onto the next one. … We got killed on the glass and that’s the glaring discrepancy that I see right now.’’

Evan Fournier, who scored 27 in Orlando’s loss to Toronto on Tuesday, made just two of 10 field goals and scored just five points in 32 minutes. Fournier, who spent his first two seasons in the NBA in Denver, missed his first seven shots and five 3-point tries on Friday. He finally got on the scoreboard with a driving reserve layup in the third period, but he had trouble shaking free for open shots all night.

``The bottom line tonight is we got outworked. They were the most aggressive team and we tried to execute, but we had no rhythm and flow,’’ Fournier said. ``They did some stuff (defensively) and were high on pick-and-rolls, but we never got into a rhythm or were the more aggressive team.’’

Scrappy forward Trey Lyles scored 22 points off the bench for Denver, while Mason Plumlee chipped in 15 points and 11 rebounds. Denver standout center Nikola Jokic scored just six points, but he controlled the game with 11 assists and 10 rebounds.

Down as much as 12 in the first half, Orlando got within seven midway through third quarter but could climb no closer. Denver led 80-68 after three periods and took the suspense out of the game with a 16-5 burst to open the fourth quarter.

``It’s disappointing because we didn’t play the way that we needed to to win against a team like Denver,’’ Vucevic said. ``We just didn’t have the energy needed in the first half. It was just not enough of energy to win a game on the road and not enough focus. Not a good game by us. We’ve just got to look at what we did wrong and get ready for Sunday.’’

Clifford prefers to use just nine players in his regular rotation because playing 10 often doesn’t allow players to get enough minutes to develop a rhythm. To that end, veteran guard Jonathon Simmons was left out of the regular rotation on Friday. Orlando again started forward Wes Iwundu, while Isaac continued to play limited minutes off the bench.

Denver forward Paul Millsap, who is in his 13thNBA season, ratcheted up the trash talk between the two teams when he summarily dismissed the comparisons between Vucevic and Jokic. Vucevic came into Friday as the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week and the owner of the better individual stats, but Millsap sided with his teammate not surprisingly.

``Jokic is a way, way better passer and in my opinion a way better basketball player,’’ said Millsap, who played with five stitches in his forehead after suffering a cut in Denver’s previous game. ``I’ll give Vucevic credit - he’s been playing good basketball and he’s a good player. But our guy is a lot better.’’

Ross almost single-handedly kept the Magic in the game in the early going, making his first seven shots as Orlando made it to the start of the fourth quarter trailing only 80-68. Four of Ross’ first seven makes were 3-pointers and he had 18 points in the game’s first three quarters. His teammates, however, made just 19 of their 56 shots (33 percent) in the first three quarters.

Gordon offered plenty of praise for the way that Ross played throughout. Without his dead-eye accuracy and dialed-in focus off the bench, the Magic’s offense might have been even more of a mess on Friday. Gordon said the Magic have to get more players as focused as Ross right now.

``He’s a baller, man, and he cares about winning and cares about playing,’’ Gordon said of Ross. ``He brings high intensity and high energy every night. That’s what a pro does and he’s a pro’s pro. We just need that same high energy from everybody if we’re going to continue to be good.’’

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.

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