Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets: Game Preview

R.J. Hampton
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- Less than 24 hours ago, the Orlando Magic, shorthanded and undermanned, were reminded just how thin their margin for error is when going against the best in the West as they suffered a blowout loss to the Utah Jazz.

Now, the Magic (17-32) will need to revert back to their laser-focused defensive mindset that served them well earlier in the road trip if they hope to bounce back when they visit the Denver Nuggets (30-18), winners of 13 of their last 16 games, on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.

“We’re going to have to do it all if we’re going to have any chance at all,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford said.

The contest will also mark R.J. Hampton’s first matchup against his former squad. The rookie combo guard was part of a trade deadline deal that sent Aaron Gordon, who had previously spent his entire seven-year career with Orlando, and Gary Clark to Denver in exchange for Hampton, Gary Harris and a future first round pick.

“It’ll be really special,” Hampton explained. “All of those guys are my friends, my guys, took care of me while I was there. But the key to beating a great team like that is to lock in, and (Saturday) night, we didn’t lock in.”

Just like the Jazz, the Nuggets are a well-balanced squad. They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive rating (116.7), third in assist to turnover ratio (2.02), second in assist ratio (19.4), while also placing top 10 in rebound percentage (51.7), limiting their opponent’s points off turnovers (15.4), restricting second-chance points (11.0) and minimizing points in the paint (44.8) per game.

“The Nuggets and Utah are kind of similar teams,” Hampton said. “You have Nikola (Jokic), you have Jamal (Murray), you have a lot of weapons, Michael Porter (Jr.). Just locking in defensively – people miss shots, make shots – but defensive things should be a no-brainer. We have to lock in, especially early (on Sunday) or something like (what happened against the Jazz) can happen again.”

KEY STAT: Hampton is making the most of his new opportunity with Orlando. Three of the top four scoring performances of his career have come in his short four-game stint with the Magic. Serving as Orlando’s backup floor general against Utah, Hampton posted a career-best 12 points, while grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out two assists.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “Whenever I’m out on the court, I’m going to give one-hundred-and-ten percent effort and just win. I want to win. We have twenty-three games left; I don’t see why we can’t make the playoffs. I don’t see why we can’t do the things people say we can’t do. It starts from the film room, it starts from the weight room, to conditioning, to proper sleep habits. Everyone has to do the right things for us to lock in and get right on these last twenty-three games.” - Hampton

INJURY UPDATE: The Magic will have eight active players tonight, but even three of those will be limited. Mo Bamba and James Ennis III are both battling through a non-COVID illness, while Chasson Randle will be limited with a sore hamstring. R.J. Hampton will get the start at point guard for Orlando.

Cole Anthony (non-displaced fracture, right rib), Khem Birch (non-COVID illness), Michael Carter-Williams (non-COVID illness), Markelle Fultz (torn ACL, left knee), Harris (strained left adductor), Jonathan Isaac (left knee rehabilitation), Karim Mane (sore right hamstring) and Otto Porter Jr. (left foot pain) are out.

For the Nuggets, Monte Morris is questionable with a left quadriceps strain.

RIVALS REPORT: In this edition of our Rivals Report series, we’re joined by Nuggets.com writer Alex Labidou. He was kind enough to take the time both after the trade deadline and today to answer a few questions about the team.

Savage: “This will be the first time the Magic see Aaron Gordon in a different uniform. How has he fit in so far with the Nuggets?”

Labidou: “The great thing about A.G. is he hasn’t come in with any expectations of what his role is. He’s just played hard on both ends. The Nuggets have yet to really call any plays for him on offense, he’s just reacting and making the right cuts and reads on offense. The good thing about playing with Nikola Jokic is if you make the right reads and you make the right cuts, he’ll find you. A lot of his buckets have been when he’s open, he gets those shots, and he hits them. On defense is where he’s made the biggest impact. Malone has used him on positions one through four. Against the Atlanta Hawks, there were possessions where he was matched up against Trae Young. Against the Clippers, he was guarding both Kawhi (Leonard) and PG (Paul George) on different possessions. That’s just massive. When you have someone who has the speed, the athleticism, and the length to cover perimeter threats the way that he can that just takes you to another level. He’s just a huge upgrade in that respect. If you watch some of the recent pressers from the Nugget players, yes, trading away Garry Harris and R.J. was an emotional move, but, to a man, everyone would acknowledge that this team is legitimately better than what it was before the trade. Will Barton went as far as to say that in his opinion the Nuggets starting five is the most complete starting five in the NBA now due to the addition of Aaron Gordon.”

Savage: “Going back to the Nuggets, what are some of the things that the Nuggets liked about R.J. especially in the pre-draft process?”

Labidou: “I remember this very distinctly. The Nuggets take Zeke Nnaji with the twenty-second pick overall and I’m like ‘aww, man, you passed up on R.J.?’ Then, all of a sudden, they announced the trade for the twenty-fourth pick, and we get R.J. and I thought that was a big move. There was a lot of talk about how they were a contending team with all of these rookies and how does that work? But what I really like about R.J.’s time here was that he knew head coach (Michael) Malone was a defensive coach, so he recognized that the only way he was going to get on the floor was to play defense. And he used his great athleticism, speed, wingspan for his position to really play great defense. He’s still a work in progress on offense, but the fun thing about him being on a team like Orlando is he gets an opportunity to work through his mistakes. He wouldn't have had that here. So, I like that move a lot for Orlando in the sense of you’re getting a piece that you can really build around. He’s a personality and he’s a lot of fun. I think that you guys are really going to enjoy watching R.J. develop in Orlando.”

Savage: “The other piece of the puzzle is Gary Harris. We obviously saw him have some successful seasons and some tougher seasons due to injury in Denver. What are some of the elements he brings to the table?”

Labidou: “It’s all about if Gary buys in. He was a great culture guy here. I can tell you based off of what I’ve seen on social media, his tenure here, and the relationships I’ve seen him build with other guys, he’s a guy who’s going to be missed here. It’s because when he was healthy, he’s a guy who just lays it all on the floor, especially on defense. Listen, the offense isn’t what it was three seasons ago when he was averaging eighteen (points per game) and hitting forty percent on threes, but he’s become a better defender in the past three seasons. He’s a guy who you can feel comfortable putting on any perimeter threat in the NBA and you know he’s going to give you a good effort. Coach Malone used to say this all the time, he’s a big part of the reason why the Nuggets were able to rally back (in their playoff series) against the Clippers. He averaged eleven (points per game), shot forty percent (from three), and played great defense on Kawhi (Leonard) and Paul George depending on who he was matched up on. Having covered the Nets previously, this reminds me of the situation with DeMarre Carroll where the Nets initially acquired him as part of an opportunity to get an asset in a first round pick from Toronto. DeMarre used that as fuel to show that he’s still very capable of being a great player. He had two great seasons in Brooklyn in being a leader in that locker room, helping guys like D’Angelo Russell take the next step. So, that’s the thing that has to be exciting for Orlando about Gary Harris is he knows what it takes to win. Sometimes you need guys like that in your locker room. He’s been through a rebuild and he’s seen what it takes to take that next step. So, that’s something I think can be really exciting for the Magic.”

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