Nikola Vucevic scored a career-high 43 points and grabbed 19 rebounds to help the Orlando Magic snap a four-game losing streak, defeating the Chicago Bulls 123-119 Friday night at the Amway Center.
“It felt great to have a career-high in a win, the last one came in a loss,” Vucevic told reporters after the game. “It was much needed for us after a touch stretch.”
The Magic, who average 20 free throw attempts per game, made 28 of 37 attempts against the Bulls (who were 18 for 20). The plus-10 free throws made advantage proved to be a significant difference in the contest.
“I thought our spirit was great, and I liked our defense until the fourth quarter,” Coach Steve Clifford told reporters after the game.
Evan Fournier added 20 points, and rookie point guard Cole Anthony scored 17 points to go along with 9 assists.
Anthony, who was matched-up opposite another North Carolina one-and-done point guard in Coby White, admitted that he had a little extra juice for tonight’s game.
“For sure, a little friendly rivalry,” Anthony joked after the game. “I was going at him, he was going back at me. It was a little back-and-forth that we had, but that’s my guy right there (White).”
Vucevic, vying for his second All-Star appearance in the last three years, began the game red hot from the floor. The ninth-year big man knocked-down five of his first six attempts from the floor, scoring 13 points in the game’s first three minutes.
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Orlando’s offense started the game clean, efficient, and patient - often running the shot-clock down to the waning seconds before coming up with a quality shot.
The Magic buried five three-point field goals and dished out 12 assists in the game’s opening period.
However, the Bulls shot a blazing 71 percent from the floor through the first quarter, led by rookie forward Patrick Williams and sharp-shooting forward Lauri Markkanen.
Things got relatively stagnant for the Magic after breaking their lineup midway through the first quarter, and an early double-digit lead they had previously built quickly evaporated.
Orlando executed a beautiful out-of-timeout play at the 4:59 mark of the second quarter (after briefly relinquishing the lead to Chicago), which proved to really get Evan Fournier going. Fournier came off a screen on the right-wing, burying a three-point field goal under heavy defensive pressure.
The ninth-year shooting guard finished the second quarter with 14 points as the Magic rebuilt a double-digit lead heading into halftime.
“He got on a roll right there (in some different ways),” Clifford said of Fournier. “Some catch-and-shoots (like that one), some pick-and-rolls, and some dribble hand-offs. As you guys know, we’ve hit stretches where things haven’t gone our way, and we have struggled to collect ourselves and come back. That’s what we did in that stretch, and he was obviously instrumental in that.”
Vucevic went back to work in the second half against young big man Daniel Gafford, who was hapless defensively for the majority of the limited minutes he played against Orlando’s starting center.
A back-and-forth third quarter resulted in the Magic taking a double-digit lead into the game’s final period, but that’s when Zach LaVine started going to work.
LaVine, who hadn’t been looking for his shot through the game’s first three quarters, exploded for 24 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter.
The sixth-year guard, who averages 26.5 points per game on the season, was continually putting the Magic in difficult defensive pick-and-roll situations every time down the floor.
A cutting LaVine converted at the rim (and drew a foul) off a cut from the left-wing to make the game a three-point contest with just under three minutes remaining. A White three-point field off a second chance opportunity tied the game at 112-112 a few possessions later.
Fournier helped Orlando regain the lead with a clutch mid-range jumper from the right baseline with 1:21 remaining in the game.
It was a lead they would not relinquish. Although, after committing a late turnover (Fournier), followed by fouling a three-point shooter (also Fournier) - the Magic certainly tried.
Two Vucevic free throws with 2.6 second remaining officially iced the game (and gave the All-Star a new career-high).
Williams, who played one season of college basketball at Florida State, finished with 20 points (7 for 11 FGA’s) and 7 rebounds in a losing effort.
Markkanen, who left the game with a right shoulder sprain, finished with 13 points (all in the first half).
The night belonged to Vucevic, who will lead the Magic back on the floor tomorrow night against this same Bulls team.
“It would mean even more to me than the first time I made it,” Vucevic said after the game when asked about the possibility of being selected to another All-Star game. “It’s hard to achieve, if I was able to do it twice it would be a huge honor.”