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The Denver Nuggets had a goal at the start of November — sweep their six-game homestand and establish Pepsi Center as a tough place for visiting teams.
The ultimate goal was spoiled halfway through by the defending champions, but Denver can get close to reaching it by beating the Orlando Magic on Saturday in the final game of the season-long homestand.
A win over the Magic and a confident Nuggets team will head to Portland on Monday for an early season test against a Northwest Division rival. They already passed one in pulling away from Oklahoma City to win on national television Thursday night, and finishing 5-1 at home will boost that confidence even more.
Home victories are vital for a team with playoff aspirations. After Saturday’s game against Orlando (8-4), Denver plays 10 of its next 14 on the road, including a six-game swing early next month.
A trip like that might not be as intimidating as in past seasons. The players feel this is a different squad than the one that missed the postseason by a game last year.
“We’re growing up,” guard Will Barton said after the 102-94 win over the Thunder. “It’s just a different feeling. I feel like guys just want to win. I feel everyone’s sacrificing for the team, and hopefully we keep it up.”
For the second time in five days, the Nuggets are getting a bit of a break.
Orlando beat Phoenix 128-112 on Friday night and got into Denver late. It’s the same scenario when Brooklyn came to town on Tuesday and the Nuggets won that game 112-104.
The Magic won’t be intimidated by the task.
They’ve already posted wins at Cleveland, New Orleans and Memphis and at home against San Antonio. They’ve also suffered a double-digit home loss to Chicago, projected to be one of the worst teams in the NBA, so overconfidence is not an issue.
Orlando is also in the midst of a tough four-game road trip that includes stops in Portland and Golden State. The Magic started well, scoring a season-high 128 points against the Suns.
“It’s maybe the toughest stretch of our season,” coach Frank Vogel told The Orlando Sentinel. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Having wins over good teams — especially on the road — helps build confidence for these games.
“It’s a critical stretch,” Magic center Nikola Vucevic told The Orlando Sentinel. “I think it’ll show us what we’re made of. We’re off to a good start to the season.
“This trip can really show how strong we are together if we hit adversity. With road trips, it can be great for a team if we win a couple of games, just build a lot of confidence.”
The Nuggets will see some familiar faces Saturday night. Orlando’s leading scorer is Evan Fournier, their 2012 draft pick whom they traded to the Magic for Arron Afflalo. Another former Nugget, D.J. Augustin, has missed four straight games with a strained left hamstring.
Afflalo was their leading scorer before coming back to Denver in 2014-15, but his role has diminished in his second tour in Orlando while Fournier has flourished.
Fournier leads Orlando in scoring at 20.5 points per game going into Friday and he is gaining confidence as a passer.
“Experience (is helpful),” he told The Orlando Sentinel. “It’s my sixth year in the league now. My reads are getting better just by being on the court more. But, honestly, man, the way we play is a big part of it.”