The Orlando Magic found themselves playing from behind in Denver soon after tip-off and by the time they made their way back, two-time MVP Nikola Jokic sealed the deal with some late-game magic.
The Magic caught the Nuggets asleep at the wheel in the third quarter and erased a 15-point halftime lead. They took the lead late in the fourth quarter and seemed to have things well in hand. But they let the most efficient offense in the league do its thing.
After Wendell Carter put the Magic up three with 1:11 to play, the Magic quickly gave up a dunk to Aaron Gordon. Markelle Fultz missed a tip-in and set the Nuggets up with a chance to take the lead. Fultz would foul Gordon and send him to the line where he made both free throws to retake the lead.
Denver intentionally fouled Makrelle Fultz. Fultz split both free throws to send the game back to Denver tied. The Nuggets turned to their MVP to seal the deal.
The Magic blitzed a Jamal Murray screen and roll forcing him to send the ball to Nikola Jokic at the top of the key. Nikola Jokic sized up Franz Wagner driving toward the free throw circle before deftly stepping back and draining a three with 0.2 seconds left.
Orlando had run out of time and run out of chances in a 119-116 loss at Ball Arena to close their five-game road trip.
The Orlando Magic closed their road trip with a spirited comeback that gave them a chance to upset the top team in the Western Conference. But one shot from an MVP sent the Magic home with a loss.
Sunday night’s matchup against the top-seeded Nuggets was the Magic’s last game of their week-long road trip out West. And during the first half, it showed.
The offense was stagnant in the first two quarters, settling for threes and only getting consistent points from the charity stripe. Orlando was just 24.1 percent from three but shot a total of 34 free throws on the night which was 15 more than Denver. That kept the team afloat.
Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner were solid per usual as they put up 18 and 19 points respectively. But it was Wagner with a +21 plus/minus that stuck out in the box score.
Wendell Carter struggled to find his footing as he only put up eight points on 3-for-10 shooting from the field.
For the Nuggets, Jokic was held in check in the scoring department outside of his three-pointer to seal the game late. He still had a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists. Jokic still had a big impact on the game without his scoring.
Instead, the Nuggets found scoring by attacking the offensive glass — 12 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points — and with the supporting cast.
Longtime Magic forward Aaron Gordon played well against his former club with 25 points on 9-for-13 shooting to go along with eight boards and five assists.
Beyond the Game:
The real difference makers for the Orlando Magic were Markelle Fultz and Bol Bol. Both of whom have been facing their own challenges as of late.
Fultz, whose stellar play was the X-factor in his December return, has not had the same impact on the games this month.
This is not to say his output has dropped as he has continued to play with great efficiency. In three of the last four games, including Sunday, he has shot at least 80 percent from the field. He finished Sunday’s game with a team-high 20 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists.
But in those four games, the Magic are just 1-3. And he had his struggles, not only missing that key free throw late to give the Magic the lead but also committing five turnovers uncharacteristically. There is certainly more to the picture. But last month, those were wins.
It is safe to say individually, Fultz is playing the best basketball of his career and the Magic have enough talent to turn nights like Sunday into wins.
For Bol, he has struggled to make a return since he missed a week in the league’s health and safety protocols.
In his first eligible game back, he did not play due to a coach’s decision and a couple of nights ago against the Utah Jazz, he was only able to muster up four points in limited minutes.
But on Sunday night, against his former team, he made the most of his 18 minutes, scoring 17 points on 8-for-12 shooting.
It is clear he, and Moe Wagner (who had +13 plus/minus by the way) are the definitive backup centers on this Magic squad.
Mo Bamba has been phased out of the rotation as he only received one minute against the Nuggets.
This year, the Orlando Magic have found a lot more production from their bench than in recent years. But there still is not a definitive answer to the backup guard position.
While Markelle Fultz caught his stride in this game, backup guards Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs struggled to find their rhythm Sunday night.
Suggs was the first guard off the bench, which reflected the recent struggles from Anthony, but he did not do much to separate himself in the first half as he only had one point. As the game wore on, he was able to create some positive things, including a nice inbound pass to find Franz Wagner to beat the third-quarter buzzer. Suggs flies around defensively but has not been as sharp as he was before his ankle soreness sidelined him for a month.
Both Suggs and Anthony finished with seven total points, but Suggs finished the match with 11 fewer minutes. And six of Suggs’ points came during Orlando’s third-quarter run.
Anthony also only shot 1 for 7 from the floor so it is safe to say Suggs played better Sunday night. But it remains to be seen if he will get the nod in the future.
Certainly, something to watch as the Magic attempt to make a run before the All-Star break.
Sitting at 16-28, the Orlando Magic have now completed their first Western Conference road trip and will not play in a different time zone for the rest of the month.
But that does not mean they are in the clear yet.
When they play their next game five days from now, the New Orleans Pelicans will come into town and kick off the second half of the month.
Of the remaining seven teams on the schedule this month, five of them have a winning record, and all of them have a better record than the Magic.
Going into the month, they knew it would be tough, and so far they have kept their heads above water but must make up ground as they return to conference play.