It was late on a Sunday night, and the Nuggets looked sleepy. They’d sputtered through 24 sluggish minutes against the visiting Magic, the team they’d connected with just 10 days prior on a trade aimed at vaulting Denver into championship contention. A leaky Denver defense had allowed the league’s fourth-worst offense since the trade deadline—y’know, when Orlando jettisoned most of its good players—to score 65 points in the first half. The Nuggets had earned their 18-point halftime deficit; it felt kind of like they’d forgotten how much force they had to apply to ensure that an overmatched opponent actually couldn’t match up.
And then, they remembered. The Nuggets unleashed hell in the second half, turning what had been an 18-point deficit into a 10-point win, and it all started with them remembering one of the many benefits of their recent trade for Aaron Gordon: When you put him into action with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, flanked by shooters like Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton, there’s an awfully good chance you’re going to get a bucket.
Focus too much on preventing Gordon from cutting straight to the basket, and Murray gets loose to drill a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Sprint out to make sure Murray’s covered, and Jokic hits the newest Nugget slicing to the rim for an easy deuce. Bring the low help defender over early and you risk leaving a shooter open in the corner; bring him too late and Gordon is finishing through contact for an and-1. Even if you nail every defensive switch and handoff to stall the initial action, you still might wind up with Jokic posting up your 6-foot-4 rookie point guard. Adding Gordon to the mix allows Denver to ask different, harder questions of a defense, ones they can’t always answer.
That early-third-quarter sequence didn’t win the game for Denver, but it did seem to get the Nuggets on track. Before long, the ball and bodies were flying around again, priming the pump for 16 assists on 25 Denver field goals after intermission; all that movement fueled bucket after bucket, as the Nuggets poured in 72 points on 59.5 percent shooting in the second half.