Jameer Nelson gave it one last fling trying to get the ball to Kyle O’Quinn on an ambitious outlet pass. O’Quinn was free and had the chance to cut what was once a 15-point deficit down to three with about a minut remaining in the fourth quarter. The ball was just a bit too far out of O’Quinn’s reach. He could not control the pass without traveling.
And all Nelson could do was put his hands on his head and give a sheepish grin. The chance for a win had slipped almost officially away at that point.
Really, though, the chance to secure the 20th win of the season and protect home court — let alone help the team’s draft position thanks to Denver’s pick heading Orlando’s way — slipped away during the course of the second and third quarters. A 13-point second quarter lead was diminished in four minutes as the Magic began to settle for jumpers, fail to attack the basket and commit cheap and silly fouls on the defensive end.
For the second straight game, Orlando allowed its opponent to dictate the pace of the game and erase a solid start. The Magic had no answers when the avalanche came as the Nuggets walked out of Amway Center with a 120-112 win on Wednesday.
Denver had Orlando rushing and trying to claw its way back into the game. Mistakes were made. And frustration seemed only to grow with the inability to close things out, even in this learning season.
“Winning is hard to do unless that is the purpose from everyone every night,” Arron Afflalo said. “We’ll get there. We’ll continue to grow for the rest of the season. When winning matters collectively, I think that is when you hang on to leads and take pride in having that advantage and stepping on their throat in a sense because that win is precious versus what you are trying to do individually when you let leads slip away. It is what it is and we’ll continue to grow as a unit.”
As Magic fans make “T-word” accusations — and some of the lineups make you wonder, especially a four-minute stretch where Arron Afflalo was playing the four and all the Magic could do was match the Nuggets and lose a point with the lead greater than 10 points in the fourth quarter — this loss leaves another poor taste in their mouth. The Magic just could not get over the hump after giving up their early lead and seemed to be trading baskets as the Nuggets kept coming at their defense.
Kenneth Faried was relentless after a slow start to the game, scoring 26 poits on 11-for-18 shooting and grabbing nine rebounds. He seemed to beat out Nikola Vucevic or Kyle O’Quinn to boards and draw fouls and and-1s with his touch around the basket.
He was not the only one bulldozing his way around the paint. J.J. Hickson added 20 points and nine rebounds off the bench. The Nuggets outscored the Magic 54-40 in the paint with a 32-16 advantage in the second half.
If you want to find a reason why the Magic lost their lead, it goes no further than the Magic’s inability to create opportunities in the paint. The long shots sparked long rebounds and helped the Nuggets take on the Magic’s defense before it could get set.
Orlando was drawn into the break-neck game Denver wanted to play. And it was clear the Magic were a bit jumpy all night on the defensive end.
“We ended up playing their pace instead of us controlling the game,” Nikola Vucevic said. “Then they built a lead and it was hard for us to get back into it.
“[In the first quarter] I think we were doing a good job defensively getting stops. We let them make some mistakes and turnovers which let us have some easy buckets on the other end. We were able to move the ball and play it pretty easily. That’s what gave us the lead. Then we got away from it and they started making shots. We got a little stagnant defensively, we couldn’t really get into a good flow.”
Vucevic was the anchor of that strong first quarter. He scored 12 of his 20 points in the opening quarter. He was good at rolling to the basket and shooting his jumper in rhythm. He finished with 16 rebounds too and that was part of what helped the Magic early on too.
As the game went on though, Denver was able to force him to miss shots. He was getting decent post looks and simply could not hit them — ending 8 for 17 from the floor. His rhythm on his jumpers was off and the Magic lost a keey offensive cog.
Without that ability to get into the paint, the Magic relied heavily on their defense and it did not show up. Denver was able to drive in to the paint and dish out. Even going under screens failed as the Nuggets hit many of their shots as the game went on.
Orlando was forced to trade buckets and that was something it could not sustain.
Arron Afflalo did his best carrying the load after a slow first half. He scored 24 poitns for the game on 10-for-18 shooting. Jameer Nelson added 19 points and nine assists, doing his best to try to take over the game in the third quarter and late in the fourth in the Magic’s final comeback.
The Magic though lacked the “juice” to make it all the way back. The offense was able to score enough and eventually the urgency kicked in to help the Magic make this one a game. But the defense did not consistently make enough stops. And the offense was not consistent enough to keep the game close and avoid those panicky moments at the end.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of playing harder, really, just carrying over good things and not trying to get possessions all at once,” Victor Oladipo said. “Just continue to do the small things and continue to play hard at both ends, even when things are going well. The last couple of games, we kind of got up early and took our foot off the gas pedal a little bit. Just something we need to learn how to do.”
The Magic are still learning how to do that and grind away games. It is a learning process and something that is not easy to do. But that does not make it any less frustrating to go through when these kind of efforts happen.
It is not quite back to the drawing board. But time is running out this season to make good on some of those lessons and show measurable improvement.