The calendar has flipped to 2019 and the Orlando Magic are still playing meaningful basketball.
That in of itself is an accomplishment for a team that failed to do so for more than half of the decade. To ensure that the Magic are still playing meaningful basketball when it truly matters - like in April, perhaps - Orlando must win games like the one they’ll play on Wednesday against the Bulls.
It will be the second game (and most favorable) of a six-game road trip for the Magic, who are set to face more challenging competition in Minnesota, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Utah.
The Magic, though, have lost six straight games in Chicago. They have also struggled offensively against the 10-27 Bulls this season, splitting the first two games of their season series. Orlando needed a go-ahead jumper by Nikola Vucevic with 28 seconds remaining to defeat the Bulls, 97-91, in Mexico City. About a week later, the Magic traveled to Chicago where the Bulls won, 90-80, behind a season-high 32 points by Lauri Markkanen. It was Orlando’s second lowest scoring game of the season.
In the two games combined this season against the Bulls, who have become more defensive minded under coach Jim Boylen, the Magic have shot just 36.9 percent from the field. The Bulls in the month of December (Boylen took over on December 3 after the firing of Fred Hoiberg) posted a defensive rating of 107.1 points per, which is 11th best in the league. Offensively in that time span, though, they were the only team in the league with a worse offensive rating than the Magic at 98.7 points per (the Magic had a dismal 101.7 rating in December).
The Magic had seemed to break out of that offensive slump during an overtime loss to the Suns, and wins over the Raptors and Pistons. But without D.J. Augustin against the Hornets, the Magic suffered a 125-100 loss as the starters shot just 40 percent from the field. The good news for the Magic is that Augustin is expected to return to the lineup against the Bulls.
D.J. Augustin (sprained right ankle) did everything in this morning's shootaround and will play tonight if he still feels OK at tipoff, Steve Clifford said. Jonathon Simmons (sprained left ankle) did not go through shootaround and appears highly unlikely to play.— Josh Robbins (@JoshuaBRobbins) January 2, 2019
That means that Jerian Grant, who the Magic acquired from the Bulls over the summer in a three-team trade, won’t receive a second-straight start. Instead, he’ll be the back-up point guard against his former team.
Grant spent two seasons with the Bulls, averaging 7.2 points and 3.4 assists in 19.8 minutes per game. His struggles this season (shooting a career-low 39.2 percent from the field) led to Steve Clifford demoting Grant to third string point guard in favor of Jonathon Simmons. With Simmons also nursing an injury, Grant didn’t exactly do anything spectacular to help his cause on the depth chart against the Hornets (9 points, 5 assists, 4-for-10 shooting).
.@OrlandoMagic G Jerian Grant on facing his former team, the @Chicago Bulls: ‘I want to beat (the Bulls), I want to beat them bad. Of course, I want to play well, but getting the win would mean everything’ | #Magic https://t.co/ILHgohb2I1— John Denton (@JohnDenton555) January 2, 2019
Steve Clifford, though, wouldn’t blame the loss on injuries.
“This wasn’t about point guard play,” Clifford told reporters after Monday’s game. “It wasn’t about who didn’t play. This was about who did play. We didn’t play well as a unit. This has happened to us two or three times before. You lose a key player, there’s certain other guys who are going to have to play well and that didn’t happen tonight. So it wasn’t about who we didn’t have, it was about how the guys who we did have played.”
We’ll see if the guys do they have on Wednesday can help the Magic solve the Bulls’ defense for the first time this season, as the two teams play for the third time in a span of three weeks.