SPORTS

Nikola Jokic leading Nuggets offensive revival this season

DENVER — In some ways, what took place inside the Pepsi Center on Monday afternoon did not resemble an NBA game. The Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets tipped off at 3:11 p.m., a strange time for pro basketball. And at least half of the seats were empty.

“It was a weird vibe in the building,” Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “It was an afternoon game. There was nobody in the stands. And I don’t think there was a lot of energy with either team. It’s just one of those days in the NBA. That’s what the game felt like.”

At least one thing, however, was not unusual: the way the Magic defended.

The Magic have struggled defensively since early December, and the slippage accelerated to alarming levels on Monday. Buoyed by a career-best performance from center Nikola Jokic, Denver routed Orlando 125-112.

“They were aggressive on both ends,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “Our defense sucked pretty much. We can’t allow a team like that who are already known for scoring a lot of points to get in a groove like they were in. We just can’t do that.”

The Nuggets made 58.4 percent of their shots and scored 76 points in the paint — season highs by a Magic opponent.

It all seemed so easy.

“The ball was moving,” Jokic said. “Everybody scored and everybody touched the ball and passed the ball. It was a really good win for us.”

Jokic scored a career-high 30 points as he made 13 of his 19 shots and distributed five assists.

The Nuggets are an improving offensive team. Still, the Magic need to perform better defensively than they have over the last month and a half, or they have no hope of reaching the postseason.

On Monday, the Magic were playing for the third time in four days and the fifth game of a lengthy road trip.

“We’re not going to give ourself an excuse,” said point guard Elfrid Payton, who scored 20 points and dished out 12 assists.

Payton is right: The Magic should not give themselves an excuse.

After all, the Nuggets had played in London just four days earlier.

Orlando can take some solace that mediocrity pervades the Eastern Conference, leaving hope that the team can make a playoff push over its last 40 games.

But time is starting to run out.

“I just thought we didn’t have a great group effort on either end of the floor,” center Nikola Vucevic said.

“It’s disappointing. I thought we didn’t do a good job of helping each other.”

The Nuggets led 69-61 at halftime, but they turned the game into a rout when they made 13 of their 19 attempts and outscored the Magic 31-22 during the third quarter.

Orlando cut its deficit to 113-101 with 4:57 left on a basket by Payton.

On Denver’s ensuing possession, however, Jameer Nelson blew past Aaron Gordon on the perimeter with a dribble drive. Nelson encountered no resistance in the lane and made an easy layup to score the Nuggets’ 67th and 68th points in the paint.

“I think [there was] a little bit of a lack of energy on my part,” Gordon said. “I liked our fight towards the end. But throughout the entirety of the game, it just kind of wasn’t there. We weren’t there for each other, especially on my part. I need to do a better job defensively.”

The Nuggets (16-23) gave the Magic (17-26) problems earlier this season, too.

On Dec. 10, the Nuggets made 56.6 percent of their shot attempts as they defeated the Magic 121-113 at Amway Center.

That remained the season-high field-goal percentage by a Magic opponent — until Monday.

“If you don’t play this team hard enough, then you’re going to see what you saw,” Vogel said.