Nobody wants to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs, even after Metta World Peace delivered a dangerous and violent blow to James Harden on Sunday afternoon. With the Thunder in the No. 2 slot of the Western Conference playoff bracket, the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks are fighting each other for control of the No. 6 seed in the name of OKC avoidance. On Sunday night, the Nuggets moved a half-game ahead of the idle Mavs for the sixth seed by blowing out a reeling Orlando Magic squad, 101-74, at the Pepsi Center.
Here's how the game developed, in a nutshell. Hot shooting from Ryan Anderson kept the Magic close for two quarters, but the Nuggets attacked the paint with authority in the second half and pulled away by getting better shots than their opponent. Denver built a 64-24 advantage on points in the paint for the game and shot 65.8 percent in the second half (to Orlando's 28.1 percent), which allowed the Nuggets to turn a 44-44 tie at intermission into a 26-point blowout win where starters got some rest at the end.
The Nuggets are playing like every game is a must-win at this point. Dallas holds the tiebreaker over Denver and has only one remaining game on the schedule (at the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday), so George Karl's squad still needs strong showings at OKC on Wednesday and at Minnesota on Thursday to keep its slim edge for the sixth seed.
As for the Magic, they are a team in shambles. No particular playoff seeding will give the hope now that Hedo Turkoglu (facial surgery) and star center Dwight Howard (back surgery) are out. To add insult to injury, and injury to injury, Earl Clark (swollen left knee) missed Sunday's game and Jameer Nelson exited in the first quarter with a calf contusion and did not return. The only player who really showed up for the Magic -- and it isn't an easy choice with everyone but Jameer Nelson saddled with a negative +/-mark -- was Ryan Anderson. When Orlando sat even at 44 with Denver heading into the half, it was because Anderson had already dropped 17 of his game-high 24 points on 7-12 shooting. When the sharpshooter struggled through a 2-6 second half, the Magic completely crumbled on offense and drifted off into oblivion.
With Dwight Howard on the shelf, Orlando turned to Daniel Orton to pick up important minutes at the center position. The transition hasn't exactly been smooth. Stan Van Gundy was blunt about the performance of center Daniel Orton in the post-game presser following Orlando's overtime loss to the Utah Jazz on Saturday, saying: "'Daniel gave us nothing. He went for every shot fake, he fouled every time. He didn't even give us minutes that we needed to give our starters some rest."
Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post analyzed the big man's performance against Utah and came away with a belief that Orton deserved the criticism, and to the 21-year-old's credit, he accepted the barbs with aplomb and told the Orlando Sentinel that Van Gundy spoke the truth: "Everything he said was true. I understand where he's coming from, and it's honest."
Orton's line of two points and five rebounds in about 20 minutes of action is underwhelming enough, but he was also beaten badly on the exact same lob play twice. Both times JaVale McGee lured Orton towards the high post with an initial flash near the elbow, and then Andre Miller stared McGee down while Orton drifted forward and McGee slipped behind the defense for a lob at the rim. Here's the first of those alley-oop plays:
As for McGee, he had a terrific night. The entertaining big man tied Danilo Gallinari with a team-high 17 points (on 8-11 shooting), grabbed eight rebounds, blocked three shots and spent most of the second half flushing emphatic dunks and turning the contest into a laugher. McGee helped the Nuggets establish that absurd 64-24 advantage on points in the paint, which particularly spiked during the second half as Denver dropped 38 paint point with a 79.2 percent conversion rate and Orlando managed just 30 total points on 28.1 percent shooting.
Kenneth Faried added an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double, while Andre Miller (11) and Ty Lawson (10) both hit double-digits in assists and combined to dish out more helpers than the entire Magic team (19). Every Nuggets starter shot 50 percent or better from the field, while no player on Orlando made more than half of their shots. That's the anatomy of a late-developing blowout.
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