ORLANDO, Fla. – In the immediate aftermath of his detonation dunk, Aaron Gordon sat on the Nuggets’ bench flexing his shoulders and smiling at the destruction he’d wrought on his former team.
His poster dunk on Orlando’s Chuma Okeke came with 3:39 left in the first quarter and drew Denver’s entire bench off its seat. They saw his intensity and knew how much this game – his first game back since his career-altering trade to Denver last March – meant to him.
Asked before the contest whether he was excited, Gordon’s easy reply spoke volumes: “Hell yeah.”
As it turned out, the first quarter was the only quarter where Denver played any defense. They stifled the Magic’s offense for just 15 first-quarter points and appeared well on their way to the second win of their seven-game road trip. But the Magic scored 93 points over the final three quarters, cooking the Nuggets in the paint and showing pride amid yet another rebuilding year. Orlando snapped a seven-game losing streak with their 108-103 win.
As the Amway Center came to life, the Magic players who Gordon had left behind played hard and with the same intensity that Gordon had brought into Wednesday night.
“I think so,” Gordon said when asked if he sensed it. “They got some guys on there. They got (Gary Harris), R.J. (Hampton) probably wanted it really bad. Cole (Anthony), Chuma, Mo (Bamba). This was a good win for them, and a really bad loss for us.”
Up 16 points at halftime, Gordon said the team got “complacent” and stopped defending as a cohesive unit. Nuggets coach Michael Malone specifically called out the starters – Gordon, Monte Morris, Will Barton, Jeff Green and Nikola Jokic – for not being ready to play to start the third quarter. Orlando opened on a 12-3 run, and the Nuggets breathed life into their downhill drives.
“This one hurts,” said Gordon, who finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and three assists.
The loss, while painful for Gordon, shouldn’t overshadow his start. According to Malone, Gordon’s playing the best basketball of his life. From his playmaking, to his defensive versatility, Gordon’s like a chess piece waiting to be deployed in innumerable ways. While averaging nearly 14 points per game on over 51% shooting from the field and six rebounds, Gordon also regularly accepts guarding the other team’s best player.
“I have another level to get to,” he said.
Asked specifically where he could improve, Gordon mentioned his ability to process the game, his footwork, his attacking and his 3-point shooting. His constant improvement will be essential to the Nuggets’ hopes of weathering their unfortunate rash of injuries. And if Gordon’s right, and he does have another level to reach, perhaps the Nuggets will be able to survive the loss of wings Michael Porter Jr. and P.J. Dozier.
Harris’ revenge: Former Nugget Gary Harris hugged Malone before the game. He joked with Barton, his longtime friend, at each stoppage. Barton could only smile when Harris smacked the ball out of his hands, knowing the type of tenacious defense he’d played before being traded to Orlando last March.
Harris finished with 11 points, three assists, three steals and one block.
“He blew up a lot of stuff out there tonight,” Morris said. “Even just when he switched, he knows a lot of our plays. He’s so fast and crafty.”
Malone lamented his team’s lack of discipline.
“We let Gary Harris drive to his right hand,” he said. “We should know better than anybody in the world which way Gary Harris is driving.”
Harris’ career has slipped precipitously after averaging a career-high 17.5 in 2017-’18 in Denver. And even though he hasn’t re-gained his offense – Harris was averaging only 6.5 points on 39% shooting this season – his defense remains unassailable. And for one night, he got the best of his former squad.