The Denver Nuggets, on the second night of a back-to-back tonight, lost 122-120 to the Orlando Magic in a backbreaking affair.

“We spoiled a golden opportunity tonight,” shared head coach Michael Malone postgame. “Once again, give that team credit. They had a lot of guys out, but the guys that did play played hard. They played aggressive, and just like us last night, they never stopped competing.”

Less than one day after Denver’s own heroic 18-point comeback against the Golden State Warriors featuring a Nikola Jokic halfcourt buzzer beater, the Magic staged their own 18-point comeback tonight. Denver had the lead as high as 18 in the third quarter, but back-to-back wide open three pointers generated by poor Nuggets defense, cut the lead down to 12. From there, the Magic simply kept outworking Denver over and over again, grabbing offensive rebounds, generating turnovers with steals in the backcourt, and playing physical defense that Denver didn’t handle well.

Jamal Murray in particular struggled mightily on both ends tonight. His process on both ends of the floor wasn’t good, and the results weren’t there either. Murray finished the game with 20 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds, but he shot just 9-of-23 from the field and 0-of-6 from three, missing the potential game-tying two-pointer at the buzzer.

 “The goal was to try and get into the Jamal-Nikola two-man game and then get Nikola in the pocket,” Malone said of Denver’s final play call. “They wind up switching it, and as Jamal drove [by] Wagner, Jalen Suggs kind of bounced back out…Jamal got it up in time, it went in and out, but we lost this game in the third quarter.”

The third quarter in question, Denver allowed 41 points, getting outscored by 10 and allowing Orlando back into the contest. Denver gave Orlando life, and the Magic took advantage. Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony in particular lifted the Magic in the second half with their effort, intensity, and execution, and the Nuggets struggled to stay in front of the shifty guards given heavy legs on the back-to-back.

Paolo Banchero went to work throughout. He had a triple-double early in the second half with his ability to see the floor at 6’10”, and he finished the game with 32 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists, going 15-of-19 from the line by being extremely aggressive at all times. Banchero never let the Nuggets off the hook defensively, and the Nuggets guarded with their arms and not with their legs tonight, swiping at the ball without actually moving to stop the ball. The Magic shot 34 free throws as a team, only making 23 of them, but that proved to be enough.

Nikola Jokic tonight had 29 points on 13-of-19 from the field in his 37 minutes. Jokic made 3-of-4 from the free throw line, but he probably should have had the ball on every single possession to close the game. Murray was struggling, and Jokic was dominating, adding eight assists to just two turnovers and making great decisions throughout the game. Jokic only had four rebounds on the evening though, and with the Magic collecting 11 offensive rebounds, that made a difference too.

Michael Porter Jr. had 22 points on 9-of-14 efficient shooting from the field, making 4-of-6 of his threes. Unfortunately, Porter attempted just one shot in the final 18 minutes of the game, making an open corner three generated by Jokic with seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

“I think it’s something we’re collectively trying to master. Continuing to find guys shots throughout [the game],” Porter expressed postgame. “Sometimes, we play different in the first quarter than we do in the fourth quarter or whatever that may be.”

 Porter continued: “It’s a tough balance when you have a lot of guys who are very capable, sometimes, you go a long stretch without touching the ball. For me, I kinda realized that if I’m going to get some shot attempts up, it’s gonna have to come in the flow of the game, and I’m gonna have to really at times be aggressive.”

Porter was shooting the ball really well, and the Nuggets needed to recognize that better throughout the game. Jokic, Murray, and the coaching staff have to have a feel for that, especially when Murray struggled, which was completely understandable on the second night of a back-to-back.

“I don’t know. It’s tough, just cause we do got a lot guys who, game to game, it could be a different hot hand, and that’s a blessing and a curse sometimes,” Porter shared. “I don’t know. Maybe the answer is staggering a couple of the starters with the bench unit. I don’t really know the answer. I do feel like there are times during the game when Aaron doesn’t touch the ball for an extended period of time, or myself or Pope.”

The Nuggets have plenty of time to figure out this shot balance, but it’s difficult for starters to get all of their shots without staggering at least a few minutes. Denver went with a full bench unit tonight, and that group struggled. Perhaps it’s time for Denver to cut the rotation down to nine players and allow Porter and others an opportunity to explore his game a bit more.

We will see. Either way, a tough loss. Denver next plays on Sunday at home against the Detroit Pistons. If they can’t show up for that one, then there will be more questions.

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