Four wins in five games means this is already a successful homestand. But why not make it five of six? The Nuggets will try to do just that, as the Orlando Magic visit the Pepsi Center on Saturday night.
At 8-4, Orlando has raced out to one of the best records in the NBA and are riding a two-game winning streak as they arrive. But there are two strikes against them – first, they are in town on the second of a back-to-back, having defeated Phoenix pretty easily, 128-112, on Friday night. So, weary legs could be an issue. Second, no matter how good or bad Orlando has been, winning in Denver has been tough. The Nuggets have won 12 of the last 14 games between the two teams in the Mile High City.
But this version of the Magic is formidable. Orlando is a young and athletic bunch led by former Nugget Evan Fournier (20 ppg), forward Aaron Gordon (19.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and underrated big man Nikola Vucevic (18.5 ppg). They are one of the best passing teams in the NBA as well, ranking third in the league in assists at 25.3 per game. Orlando is 4-2 on the road and is riding a three-game road winning streak.
“When I think of the Magic right now, I think of a team that is playing at a high level offensively,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Shooting the ball really, really well from the 3-point line, and they have a very solid defense as well. You can probably say they are the most surprising team, if you will, for people in the NBA. But I’m sure for (coach) Frank Vogel and his staff, they are not surprised.”
So where do the Nuggets begin to take down Orlando? Start with these things…
Pound the paint: If there is one spot that the Magic is most vulnerable, it’s in defending the paint. Orlando is giving up paint points by the boatload – an eye-popping 51.0 a night – and this is where the Nuggets could exploit the Magic. Denver ranks third in the NBA in scoring points in the paint, at 50.5 per game. This is where Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap could have big nights working the block, but it’s not just collecting paint points in the traditional sense. Getting downhill and into the paint off of screens and cutting action are ways the Nuggets can run up the points in the paint tally as well.
Get back in transition defense: At their best, Orlando is a fast-paced team that looks to run off of pretty much any ending to its opponents’ offensive possession. So, the Magic will run off of turnovers and missed shots, but they’ve also shown on numerous occasions that they’ll quickly get the ball inbounds after a made shot and push it up court to try and get right to the rim. They put a lot pressure on opposing defenses from start to finish. Getting back and identifying defensive assignments is paramount.
Defend the 3: The Nuggets have already faced some tough challenges against good 3-point shooting teams, and Orlando is another one. They lead the NBA in 3-point percentage at 41 percent, and they launch a lot of attempts, about 29 per game, from the arc. Orlando generates good 3-point looks from multiple drive-and-kick situations within single possessions, and will hit opponents with 3-point shots in transition as well.
INJURY REPORT: Gary Harris – Right Shoulder Soreness. Questionable. Juancho Hernangomez– Mononucleosis. Questionable.
Christopher Dempsey: firstname.lastname@example.org and @chrisadempsey on Twitter