It was just before tip off when the Magic learned Dwight Howard, unbreakable and uninjurable in his eight-year career, would not be able to go for Sunday's game against Denver as he suffered from back spasms and received treatment from Magic staff in the locker room. It would take a hell of a fight from the Magic to stay competitive against one of the top offensive teams in the league.
Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis were up for the challenge. At times, carrying the team on their collective and individual backs. Doing little things and staying aggressive. Orlando was not going to be satisfied with passing off a loss to the fact Dwight Howard was not available. Every game counts the same and this one would not be relinquished without a fight.
Down nine points late in the fourth quarter, after constantly fighting back from a lead that yo-yoed from anywhere between tied and 10 points for the majority of the game, the Magic gave one more run to scare the Nuggets. Jameer Nelson led the way, driving to the basket. Then J.J. Redick hit a jumper and drew a foul. The points kept coming and coming.
The fight though is not enough.
Would Orlando have been able to stave off the last salvo if Dwight Howard were in? Would the Magic have been able to avoid trailing by nine with about two minutes to play if Howard were manning the paint? Would Orlando pull away when the team was up four points in the third quarter with Howard providing a rock and sucking the defense in?
We will never know.
What happened though was Ty Lawson running a pick and roll and shaking Ryan Anderson (in fairness, he rolled his ankle and is day-to-day with a sprained ankle) before draining the elbow jumper. It gave Denver a four-point lead. A missed free throw allowed Orlando one more shot to try, but Jason Richardson's heave from half court was no good. Denver scored a 104-101 victory over the Dwight-less Magic, showing the fight is not always enough.
There are plenty of takeaways from this game. None that we may be able conclusively to draw out until Howard is back on the floor (hopefully Tuesday).
First, Orlando does have players that are willing to scrap and claw and give the team everything they have. Nelson continued his torrid stretch of play with 27 points on 11-for-21 shooting. Ryan Anderson added 20 points and J.J. Redick had 15 off the bench. Glen Davis was scrappy too with 18 points and a career-high 16 rebounds in his first start at center.
The Magic's offense had plenty of moments where it bogged down. There was no superstar to attract the defense's attention and much of the playmaking role was left on Nelson to accomplish. When he was able to get to the basket, the team was about as fluid as it could have been with Howard in the game.
Of course, Denver also did a fair job stymying the offense by switching on every screen. Without Howard to attract attention, and feeling fairly confident about defending and recovering on Davis in the post, Orlando's offense did slow to a crawl at some points.
It should be noted that the Magic shot 42 percent from the floor and just 8 for 32 from beyond the arc. Davis grabbed nine of Orlando's 18 offensive rebounds in the game to really keep possessions alive and give the Magic a chance continually to fight back.
Orlando needed every single one of those extra possessions -- plus the 17 extra ones Denver gave Orlando -- to keep this one tight. The defense without Howard was plainly non-existent at times.
The Nuggets shot 55.6 percent from the floor, drawing Stan Van Gundy's ire when many Magic fans were simply happy to be in a competitive game without Howard. The defense was certainly not good in this one.
Ty Lawson scored 25 points and Arron Afflalo had 22. Al Harrington added 18 off the bench and Andre Miller continued to be a thorn in the franchise's side with 15. If Denver stayed patient enough to get a good shot and did not turn the ball over, then they were getting whatever they wanted. It did not sit well with Van Gundy.
But there was nothing he could do. If there was ever a sign of how poorly constructed this roster is, it might have been in the defense and the team's struggles to protect the rim and keep Denver from scoring in this one.
The loss to the Nuggets showed that this is a team that can play well when it plays together with energy and urgency. But it showed, once again, that it is a fragile team that needs that consistent offensive option to bail them out and that defensively this team relies heavily on one player for a lot of its defensive prowess.
One thing is clear, the fight has to be there like it was Sunday. But that simply is not enough for this Magic team.