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Chicago Bulls 102, Orlando Magic 99

Without Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic pushed the Chicago Bulls, the East's top team, to the final possession in a Sunday matinee, but wound up falling by a 102-99 final after officials correctly ruled Jameer Nelson's tying three-pointer on the Magic's final play was too tardy. Orlando sorely missed Howard's defensive presence in the lane; without him there, Bulls point guard and surefire MVP candidate Derrick Rose, arguably the greatest player since Michael Jordan one of the league's three best players at his position, scored 39 points on 13-of-17 shooting, driving the lane with impunity and scoring at the rim. He finished 8-of-9 on baskets in the painted area, an unusually high number of attempts and makes for him in that zone against Orlando.

In Howard's absence, Ryan Anderson delivered an impressive performance, with 28 points and 10 rebounds (7 offensive) in just 35 minutes of hard work. His offensive rebound and kickout led to a Jason Richardson three-pointer on the Magic's penultimate possession, which brought Orlando to within a point at 100-99. Richardson caught fire in the second half of this game, pouring in 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting overall.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Bulls 84 121.5 65.8% 38.3 22.7 25.0
Magic 84 118.2 50.6% 21.0 33.3 15.5
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

Orlando could have won this game, even without Howard, with a stronger showing from its starting forwards. Hedo Turkoglu and Brandon Bass combined to shoot 4-of-24 today. Turkoglu's issue was shot-selection, as he tried too many leaning, long two-point baskets off the dribble. He likes to take those, sure, but against a defense as stout as Chicago's, he can't settle. To his credit, he worked his way into 6 free-throw attempts, and dished 4 assists to 1 turnover. That's fine. But the Magic can't win many games with him firing away (13 shots in 36 minutes) and converting such a low percentage.

Bass just missed good shots. By my count he blew two dunks and rattled out several open, long twos off the catch, which he usually makes at a reasonable rate. I chalk it up to an off game for him. Shots didn't drop today. He played well in other areas, particularly on defense. Carlos Boozer, whom he checked for much of the afternoon, shot 3-of-7 from the floor.

The Bulls took control of the game early in the second quarter, opening up an 11-point lead as Orlando rolled with its second unit, weakened by Anderson's shift to the starting lineup, J.J. Redick's prolonged absence due to injury, and Quentin Richardson's suspension. With Rose resting, the Bulls' underrated second unit extended the lead. When Anderson, Nelson, and Jason Richardson returned, Orlando restored order, and tied the game at 46 at the first-half buzzer when Nelson swished a heave from midcourt.

But that first few minutes of the second quarter, it seemed to me, decided the game. Chicago has reserves who can contribute on both ends; the Magic do not, or at least not in this game. The rest of the way, I thought Orlando played the visitors fairly evenly. Neither team led by more than five points after intermission.

The loss means virtually nothing to Orlando, except that it will have to win its final two games to avoid finishing with its worst record of the Stan Van Gundy area. Chicago, which has already clinched homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference Finals, needed the win to keep pace with the San Antonio Spurs for the league's best overall record. The Magic and Bulls are on the same side of the playoff bracket, and will meet in the second round if the Magic can get past the Atlanta Hawks in the Quarterfinals.

A final note on Rose: he's a brilliant player, OK, and when I refer to him as "arguably the greatest player since Michael Jordan one of the league's three best players at his position," I'm needling his army of hyper-defensive fans, not disrespecting him, unless you think saying "this player isn't the best" means "this player is not any good," in which case you are beyond hope.