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Chicago Bulls 99, Orlando Magic 90

Dwight Howard turned in the finest regular-season performance of his NBA career Friday night, but his Orlando Magic didn't give him enough help against the Chicago Bulls, who rode Luol Deng's 26 points--24 in the second half--to a 99-90 victory. Howard put up 40 points, 15 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocked shots, which should be enough for Orlando to roll against most opponents. But his teammates shot just 18-of-50 from the floor and scored 58 points, with no other player scoring more than 11, undermining his dominant effort. Meanwhile, Deng asserted himself after halftime against Hedo Turkoglu, beating the Magic's small forward off the dribble time and again for his fifth 26-plus-point outing of the season. Derrick Rose, who hadn't eaten in four days due to pain from two stomach ulcers, shot 6-of-21 from the floor, but still managed 22 points and 12 assists against a porous Magic defense.

The Magic capitalized on a sloppy second period from Chicago to hold a 51-46 lead at intermission. But Deng scored the Bulls' first 8 points of the second half, which Rose followed with a three-pointer, to kick-start an 11-3 Bulls run and, by extension, the Magic's demise. Magic point guard Jameer Nelson played just 8 minutes before his sore knee acted up on him, ruling him out for the rest of the game. As a result, in-season acquisition Gilbert Arenas had to play 31 minutes in Nelson's relief, and he did so poorly. After making two long two-point jumpers to bring the Magic to within 7 early in the fourth period, he missed consecutive three-pointers and went cold. He finished with 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting, along with 3 assists and 4 turnovers. His last miscue, a crosscourt pass to Turkoglu which Deng picked off with ease, gave Chicago the ball with a 5-point lead an 32 seconds to play, effectively ending the Magic's dim comeback hopes.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 91 99.4 44.2% 26.9 15.6 12.1
Bulls 90 109.6 47.1% 19.5 32.7 14.4
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

The Magic just lacked energy tonight, which can't happen against a team as talented as Chicago, even missing its best interior defender in Joakim Noah. The Bulls are among the league's best offensive rebounding squads to begin with, but it's telling that the Magic, who rank tops in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage due largely to Howard, let the Bulls grab 32.7 percent of their own misses. If Orlando makes a better effort there tonight, it might have pulled out the victory despite shooting just 5-of-21 from three-point distance.

In some ways, the Magic played like a cartoon of themselves tonight, a cartoon an internet commenter with a poor understanding of their game, and basketball as a whole, might draw. Howard put up 40 points on 20 field-goal attempts, but his teammates did nothing of consequence, at either end. Defensively, the Magic too often let the Bulls, particularly Deng, get to the hoop. They also did more damage from beyond the arc than Orlando did, shooting 8-of-18 from deep. Kyle Korver and former Magic swingman Keith Bogans had two triples apiece.

Nelson would have helped the Magic tonight tremendously, as he's shown throughout his career he can get past Rose off the dribble and can beat coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes with his passing. Arenas does neither of those things, which may have contributed to Orlando's wing players struggling mightily on offense. Turkoglu and Jason Richardson shot 4-of-20 from the floor for 13 points, and both of Richardson's buckets came in transition off Howard-created opportunities; he did not score once in the halfcourt. Deng's a great defender to begin with, so maybe Nelson's absence for 40 minutes tonight had no bearing on Turkoglu's awful play. But it's still worth thinking about.

The Magic traded for Arenas, Richardson, and Turkoglu to bolster their offense, and by all accounts they've done that, with the team improving on that side of the ball since those three came aboard. But against the league's best defense, Orlando has very little margin for error. It made too many mistakes tonight, and lost accordingly. For the second time in three games, the Magic lost, and deservedly so. This sort of performance is obviously not what team President of Basketball Operations Otis Smith had in mind when he made those trades.

As for Howard? This performance might go in his all-time highlight reel when he retires, and in my estimation, the only time he's ever played better is in Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. A lot can happen between now and July 2012, but something tells me Howard will remember this loss when he's deciding whether or not to stick with the Magic when he becomes a free agent. Richardson and Turkoglu should be enough to put Orlando over the top offensively, to give Howard help on the wings. They weren't tonight, and there's no indication they will be in a potential playoff series against this Bulls squad.