Denver Nuggets roll Orlando Magic to cap off 5-1 homestand

Denver Nuggets roll Orlando Magic to cap off 5-1 homestand

Paul Millsap candidly assessed the importance of the Nuggets’ game Saturday night against the Orlando Magic about eight hours before it tipped off.

Yes, Denver’s victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in front of a sold-out crowd and national television audience was big. But how the Nuggets followed that performance against an East Coast team on the second night of a back-to-back set could be another indicator of Denver’s progress.

Mission accomplished. The Nuggets rolled the Magic 125-107 at the Pepsi Center to clinch their seventh victory in nine contests, finish their season-long homestand 5-1 and grab a half-game lead in the Northwest Division.

“Last year, I would be frustrated when we lost games like that,” guard Will Barton said, “because at the end of the season, when you’re trying to make that push, those games will come back and bite you in the butt.

“I just try to stay on the guys about winning games I think we should win. That’s no disrespect to any team … I just feel like they’re coming in on a back-to-back, they’re a little tired. We’ve got to go out there and try to impose our will.”

It was a game in which the Nuggets (8-5) pulled ahead for good before three minutes had ticked off the game clock, dropped 70 points in the first half and led by as many as 30 points.

It was a game in which the Nuggets got a “phenomenal” performance from their backcourt, with point guard Jamal Murray setting career highs in both points (32) and 3-pointers (six) and Barton totaling season bests in both points (26) and rebounds (nine) and added five assists while starting in place of an injured Gary Harris.

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It was a game peppered with Nikola Jokic highlights — including a half-court lob to Kenneth Faried for a one-handed alley-oop dunk — as he recorded a stat line (12 points, season-high 17 rebounds, eight assists, three steals, one turnover) that Nuggets coach Michael Malone affectionately called “a joke.”

And it was a game that got temporarily interesting in the final quarter, when the Magic cut Denver’s lead to 104-91 with about eight minutes to play before a 10-0 Nuggets run all but finalized the result. Barton scored five of his points during the stretch, while Millsap opened the spurt with a dunk and Wilson Chandler converted an old-fashioned 3-point play.

“Offensively, we’re starting to figure it out,” Malone said. “You can see the confidence, the chemistry, the spacing, guys playing off of each other. And more importantly, guys playing for each other. We have a lot of weapons.”

Added Jokic: “We are not aiming or going to (whoever has the hot hand), the ball’s just gonna find him.”

Denver held an Orlando team that entered Saturday leading the NBA in 3-point shooting to more than five percentage points below their season average, and the league’s individual 3-point leader Aaron Gordon to 1-of-5 from long range. The Nuggets dominated the glass 50-36, with Jokic out-rebounding the Magic’s entire starting unit by himself. And Denver dished out 29 assists against 13 turnovers, a trouble area for much of the early season.

Following an uneven 2-2 road trip, the Nuggets set a lofty goal of finishing this homestand 6-0.

A blowout loss to the defending champion Golden State Warriors prevented that. But during this 11-day stretch to start November, the Nuggets blew out three Eastern Conference foes in the Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets and Magic. They seized a down-to-the wire win over the Miami Heat, thanks to three clutch free throws by Millsap. They got career performances from Murray and Jokic, who scored a career-high 41 points against the Nets. And they won a close game against the Thunder, the division rival that dashed Denver’s playoff hopes last season.

Throughout this homestand, Denver also rapidly moved from last place in the Northwest Division to first, following the Minnesota Timberwolves’ loss to the Phoenix Suns Saturday night. That exemplifies the back-and-forth nature of the early NBA season, especially in the league’s toughest division. But the Nuggets also believe it exemplifies their growth throughout this key stretch.

Now, the Nuggets must continue their evolution away from the Pepsi Center. Denver will play five of its next seven games on the road, starting with Monday’s contest at division-rival Portland.

Saturday night, though, the Nuggets passed another test.

“If we want to be the team we all say we want to be, you have to win the games you’re supposed to,” Malone said. “You have to close teams out … To go 5-1 on a homestand like this I think is a great step in the right direction for us.

“That’s a sign of a team that’s coming together. Obviously, if you want to be a playoff team, you have to win at home.”

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