Looking to bounce back from their fourth-quarter meltdown in Boston, the Magic faced an incredibly tough assignment in the windy city. The Eastern Conference leading Bulls were on tap, powered by their burgeoning MVP candidate, DeMar DeRozan, the electric Zach LaVine, and the familiar face of Nikola Vucevic. Despite a valiant effort the Magic fell short, ultimately going down 102-98 in a game that was tightly-contested until the final siren.
The Magic were able to land the first blow, going up first 8-0 and then 11-2 on the back of some aggressive play by Franz Wagner and timely shot-making by Mo Bamba and Gary Harris. Wagner continued to be the straw to stir Orlando’s drink across the first 8 minutes, using his dribble game and passing to generate shots for his teammates while also finishing some sequences with authority himself. Defensively the Magic were effectively contesting Chicago shot attempts, crowding the paint and daring the normally sharp-shooting Bulls to beat them from outside. They couldn’t, opening 0-8 from beyond the arc and allowing Orlando to steadily build a 21-10 lead. However, a 5-0 burst by Chicago in the quarter’s final minute reduced the margin to just 6 at the first break.
Despite a promising start to the period, the Magic’s deep bench unit couldn’t keep Chicago off the scoreboard in the same way as the starters. A 10-3 spurt powered by DeRozan and rejuvenated outside shooting brought the Bulls back within a point, before a Derrick Jones Jr. put-back gave Chicago their first lead of the night. A beautiful back-cut by Harris and find by Wendell Carter Jr. allowed the Magic to knot things back up at 28-apiece, but a 5-point streak by Vooch gave the ascendancy back to the Bulls.
The return of the starters helped the Magic’s offense a bit more of a rhythm, particularly with the team playing through a visibly motivated Carter Jr. He was effective both as a scorer and a facilitator, personally tallying 6 straight while also flashing some nice playmaking instincts, even if the sequences didn’t always bear fruit for his teammates. However, cold shooting really hampered Orlando’s efforts, with players other than WCJ enduring a scoreless drought of more than six minutes, allowing Chicago to build a cushion despite their own accuracy woes. The two teams traded triples in the closing minutes, the Magic ultimately heading into the half-time break trailing 45-40 despite their early lead.
Carter Jr. led the Magic at the main break with 10 points on 5-8 shooting and 6 rebounds. Unfortunately, he was the team’s only player shooting greater than 50.0% from the field, although Wagner (7) and Harris (8) had both shown flashes. Still, Orlando’s collective accuracy of just 36.4% (16-44) was the key factor in explaining why they were behind on the scoreboard. The Bulls weren’t shooting much better (17-44, 38.6%), but they were able to inch in front courtesy of a greater three-point rate (18 attempts to 12), an extra made free throw (5 compared to 4), and slightly better turnover (5 to 6) and offensive rebounding numbers (3 to 2). In a tight, ugly contest those battles on the margin loomed large.
A drawn foul on a three-point attempt looked like it might serve as the catalyst to get LaVine going, the Bulls extending their advantage to 9 after he drilled his third triple of the game. The Magic fought back in threes, Harris drilling a pair of long-range attempts around a Wagner and-one sequence, but LaVine’s fourth make from behind the arc pushed Chicago back out by 5. The margin continued to linger around that mark, the teams trading buckets and turnovers over the next few minutes as Coby White and Terrence Ross kept the scoreboard ticking over for the respective franchises. One final Ross mid-ranger brought the Magic a little closer, the third ending with the team down just 69-66.
The Bulls opened the fourth on a 6-2 spurt, taking advantage of an ill-timed Bamba technical that was effectively converted into a four-point play. Chicago scored on four of their first five possessions in the period, compiling a 9 point lead as the Magic struggled to find a reliable offensive option. A beautiful mid-air pass from Ross to WCJ resulted in a pretty basket, the big man following it up with a bully-ball post move after generating a mismatch. A LaVine miss at the other end then gave the Magic a chance against a backpedaling defense, which Wagner was able to convert via a triple from the corner. Orlando was back within 4 with 7:50 remaining, trailing just 81-77.
White and Carter Jr. traded triples coming out of a time-out, before a classic Vucevic spin move got the Bulls another bucket. As he came out of the pick and roll, Hampton found Harris cutting to the corner, the veteran guard drilling another three and again making it a one-possession game. WCJ reduced it further with a pair of free-throws, which Vooch countered by slamming home an offensive carom. Wagner made another tough runner in the lane to get Orlando within a single point, only for the Magic to see LaVine bank in an awkward shot at the other end to restore the three-point differential.
Orlando executed a well-designed play coming out of the time-out, Ross sucking in two defenders before finding a relocated Carter Jr. in the corner. Unfortunately the big man wasn’t able to find the bottom of the net, the Bulls capitalizing at the other end with a DeRozan mid-range jumper and a LaVine stepback triple after Ross missed a corner three of his own. The Magic now trailed by eight with only two minutes and change remaining.
Some transition chances generated by disruptive defense gave the Magic a sniff in the final exchanges, the margin at one point cut to four after Wagner and Hampton both finished at the hoop. DeRozan split a pair of free-throws to make it 98-93, but Wagner was able to draw contact on a three-point attempt off an inbounds play after a time-out. The rookie calmly hit all three, sending the Bulls to a huddle as they looked to close the contest.
The final 20 seconds became a free-throw shooting contest, with the Magic extending the game by sending the Bulls to the line and Orlando getting there on the back of some physical defense. An awkward Hampton flagrant foul effectively ended it, allowing Chicago to split a pair of freebies and maintain possession, which DeRozan duly converted into an insurmountable four-point margin. A few moments later the siren sounded, the Magic falling 102-98 on the second night of a tough back-to-back set.
Orlando’s three stars
Hockey is a pretty great sport, so I thought I would steal one of its best little touches for my own game analysis: the three stars. Here is who caught my eye tonight.
First star: Wendell Carter Jr. — was immense in this revenge game, rolling to 21 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists in a complete performance. By necessity has become a playmaker for the Magic, a developing skill set which he again routinely flashed tonight.
Second star: Franz Wagner — the ice-cold rookie bounced back from a tough closing stretch against the Celtics last night, putting up 22 points on 8-13 shooting and frequently looking like the Magic’s most dangerous option. Was especially good in the clutch, helping Orlando stay in this one all the way to the final buzzer.
Third star: Gary Harris — the veteran wing’s rejuvenation continued as he racked up 19 points, arriving there on 7-16 shooting that included a much-needed 5-10 from deep.
It was an admirable effort but a losing one nonetheless, the result dropping the Magic to 7-31 on the season and extending the current winless streak to six. They’ll look to snap that skid when they’re next in action against the 76ers on Wednesday.