The Denver Nuggets were back on the road on Thursday night for a date in Florida with the Orlando Magic but were unable to to assert themselves in a disappointing 115-104 loss at the sold out Amway Center. The Nuggets jumped out to a 12-0 lead in the first three minutes, but that lead evaporated after a 22-9 run by the young Magic.
Once the Magic took the lead in the final minute of the first quarter, they never relinquished it as they led the rest of the way and stunned the best team in the West. The loss for Denver came on the heels of one of the busiest NBA trade deadlines in recent years—a frenzied time during which the Nuggets did little to bolster their squad. As always, there are a few things we can take away from Thursday night’s action.
Denver’s Lack Of Depth Was Clear As Day
If there was ever a game that illustrated what Denver’s missing the most it was this matchup with the 23-33 Magic: the Nuggets’ bench was outscored 56 to 10. The Magic had three different players come off the pine to score more than Denver’s entire bench. Four of Denver’s five starters had positive plus/minus’ for this game but all four bench players had plus/minus’ of -16 or worse. They combined for four field goals, two turnovers, and five fouls.
Now, granted, the roster is somewhat in flux right now after having traded for center Thomas Bryant, shipping off 2021 first round pick Bones Hyland, and seemingly preparing for some activity in the buyout market, but still, it was a woeful performance. When a guy like Jamal Murray is out, quality minutes are required from the bench, which is scoring just the 19th most points per game this season despite the Nuggets scoring the 7th most as a team.
The whole Hyland drama was getting a bit exhausting, but this would have been the type of game where a guy like that can come in and provide a scoring spark off the bench. Zeke Nnaji was unavailable so that also hurt Denver’s depth, but it’s clear the Nuggets will need to add some more scoring off the bench before they start the stretch run. With all the firepower that just got added to the Western Conference, they’re going to need every bucket they can get.
Michael Porter Jr. Disappeared, Aaron Gordon Showed Up
The Nuggets were off to the races early in Orlando, with the East Coast 7PM tip seemingly agreeing with them. Denver’s hot 12-0 start was largely buoyed by nine early points from Michael Porter Jr. through the first four minutes. Unfortunately, that was pretty much all MPJ was going to provide on the night, starting 2-for-5 from the field and going 1-for-11 for three points the rest of the way.
With Murray out, this is one of the game’s where Porter Jr. needs to step up. Sometimes the shot just isn’t falling, as evidenced by his 3-for-16 shooting night from beyond the arc, but that’s when MPJ needs to be able to find other ways to score, and with only four shots from inside the arc, he wasn’t even trying. MPJ has been one of the most efficient shooters in the NBA since he’s been in the league, so we know that jumper will fall again, but it would be nice to see the guy get to the cup from time to time at 6’10”.
With no Murray and MPJ building a house of bricks, this game could’ve gotten out of hand if it wasn’t for Aaron Gordon and his season-high 37 points. Gordon continues to have a career year for the Nuggets and has brushed the All-Star snub off his shoulder and put together back-to-back impressive showings after he put up 24 on 11 shots against Minnesota.
Reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic had a ho-hum 29 points and 12 rebounds, but Gordon was Denver’s best player on this night, going 15-for-21 from the field including three treys. He notched his 11th double-double of the season with 13 boards and also chipped in three dimes, a block, and a steal. Gordon was efficient as ever, nailing threes when they came to him and otherwise rolling to the rim to get his work done as efficiently as possible.
The Absence Of Jamal Murray Was Sorely Felt
One of the most beautiful things about this Denver Nuggets season has been the reemergence of Jamal Murray after his ACL tear. While he has missed fewer games than many expected he would, there’s been a hole in this Nuggets team when he’s not playing. Murray has now missed the last three consecutive games due to right knee inflammation, bad news that is slightly blunted by the fact that the inflammation is not coming from his surgically repaired left knee. Phew.
While Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown were decent in the back court thanks to some solid defense, neither was able to hit a triple on six attempts and they combined for just 16 points. It wasn’t just Murray’s shotmaking but his playmaking that was lacking as well, as Denver was only able to spread the love for 24 assists in the game, well below their season average of 28.9.
Murray’s 83 percent mark from the free throw line was also something Denver could have used, as they continue to struggle mightily from the charity stripe, going 16-for-24 in Orlando. The Nuggets are shooting free throws at a clip of less than 75 percent, which is a bottom five mark in the league. It is something Denver will need to fix quickly if they’re going to make the deep playoff run they should this season.