Zach LaVine finished with 26 points and rookie Patrick Williams became the youngest player in franchise history to score 20 points (a new career-high) but Orlando's Nikola Vucevic dominated the game with 43 points and 19 rebounds as the Magic put away the Bulls 123-119. Lauri Markkanen left the game in the third quarter with a right shoulder strain and is doubtful to play Saturday night when Chicago (8-13) gets their rematch with Orlando (9-14).
Lauri Markkanen hears it constantly. Get tougher, be physical, go to the basket harder, fight through them.
And so Friday in Orlando after yet another capricious Bulls start and almost immediate 14-point deficit, Markkanen took heed. He grabbed a long rebound, turned and began racing toward the Magic basket. Markkanen was determined. He wasn't going to be stopped. There were a pair of 30-some games and then a bit of a setback against the Knicks Wednesday. Not again.
Markkanen banged hard into Orlando's 6-6 fireplug forward Gary Clark. Clark bounced back two feet. Markkanen didn't flinch, turned and with his facile drag step scored and took another blow for the foul and three-point play. Make that eight straight points for the Bulls and back in the game.
But what about the season? Talk about your pyrrhic victories.
Markkanen immediately grabbed his right shoulder. And though he would soldier on with 13 points in 17 minutes, it became too much just minutes into the second half of a 123-119 Orlando victory.
Lauri Markkanen left the game in the third quarter with a right shoulder sprain and did not return.
The Bulls reported Markkanen sustained a right shoulder strain that coach Billy Donovan said likely would keep Markkanen out at least for Saturday's rematch with the Magic. Thus joining much of the front court with Wendell Carter Jr. out into March and Otto Porter Jr. now idled indefinitely with back problems.
And a fifth Bulls loss in six games even if it was the seventh loss of fewer than five points in an 8-13 start. The Bulls quickly obliterated that 18-4 Orlando start. They led by six points midway through the third quarter and appeared to force a jump ball trailing by two points with about six seconds left after LaVine willed them back from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit with 24 fourth quarter points. Unlike in the Portland game last week when a jump ball call cost the Bulls the game, this time the lack of it didn't give them a last chance. "That's the way it goes," Donovan accepted.
Patrick Williams, with his best game as a Bull with 20 points and seven rebounds, was a monster just growing, as LaVine suggested. Thaddeus Young added 15 points and a few crucial defensive plays down the stretch to a 40-29 reserves' margin. Denzel Valentine wiggled his way to 14 points.
But Markkanen's absence raised fears of deja vu not again, as it were, for this star crossed Bulls team that has been seeing some daylight this season.
"You've at least got to split," said LaVine. "It's tough playing a team back to back, but I think it prepares you for further on down the road. Our mindset has to be we have to go in here and steal this one before we get back to the house."
It's perhaps still too early in this 72-game season for any of these epoch cataclysmic games with virus and injury absences throughout the league. But the Bulls also don't want to be slipping too far under that even CPR isn't enough, Coby, Patrick and Ryan.
"It was disappointing," agreed Donovan. "We were playing from behind a good majority of the game. We got back in it. We couldn't make enough plays, to be quite honest. There was a lot of things that we did leading up to that finish that we would have needed to have done a whole lot better, certainly the start of the game and that last four or five minutes of that second quarter (23-7 Magic close to first half).
"Certainly not having Wendell and most likely Lauri tomorrow and Otto, that certainly doesn't help our team," Donovan acknowledged. "We're going to need to dig deeper in the bench. Some other guys will get some opportunities to play. I look at some of the minutes that these guys played and they left it on the line in terms of competing and battling and fighting to get back in the game. We couldn't make enough plays at the end. We're going to need a lot more bodies than we had tonight."
Hello, Cristiano Felicio and Luke Kornet?
They've rarely even been questions this season, yet answers. But with Orlando's Nikola Vucevic sabotaging the Bulls with a career high 43 points and 19 rebounds—with 19 Orlando second chance points—perhaps the Bulls biggest small issue has been hiding in plain sight. It's been the inexperience of Daniel Gafford in his fifth straight start, basically all of which the Bulls fell behind quickly and again like Friday led to a quick timeout and substitution of Young to center. Again, Donovan started the second half with Young at center.
But as much of a revival of spirit he's bringing, Young's still not growing from his approximate 6-8. So Vucevic after an early sprinkling of threes took advantage along with a 49-40 Orlando rebounding margin. The Bulls would commit just eight turnovers, but shot poorly from three again (nine of 30) and fouled the bigger Magic on the way to 37 Orlando free throw attempts to 20 for the Bulls. Orlando also shot 52 percent overall.
"It's been a variety of different things," said Donovan. "Against New York, maybe it was rebounding. Tonight, it was fouling. It's periods of time where we kind of lose control. We've got to be able to course correct a little bit sooner."
But how much can they now not being so deep anymore? In part because Young has been so good and valuable. His clever interior passing, scoring and defense has been a balm for the team. But the 14-year veteran will need a lot of ointment if he continues with more of these 30-plus minutes games.
"The problem is I can't keep playing Thad 31 minutes a night. I can't do that," Donovan emphasized. "He's a warrior and he's fine, and he'll never say anything different than that. He'll play. But it's really hard to sit there and expect those guys to play 33, 34 minutes a night. He'll give me everything he has. Those guys coming off the bench have played very, very well. But you're trying to balance out those minutes to finish out a season. So, yeah, you can start them? But then I think you've got to look at the second unit, too. As great as he's played this year for us, I need to be mindful of where he's at physically. I don't know if that's sustainable. We've got to be smart because I think what happens is he will not play with the same pop. Even though he's healthy and he can go out there and play, we want him playing at the level he's played at here the last couple of weeks."
Rookie Patrick Williams scored a career-high 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds against Orlando.
Thad, Thad, he's our man.
If he can't do it.
It sure finally looked like it Friday in the best thing that happened in a loss. LaVine was great with 26 points, eight assists and one turnover even if he couldn't make every shot in the last few minutes with eight of 14 in the fourth. Perhaps the incubation period for the NBA's youngest player is complete after 21 games? Though who knew they hatched that big.
"I tell him all the time, ‘Man, just be aggressive, be who you are.' When he plays like that I don't think he understands his strength and his physicality," said LaVine. "At 19 it's ridiculous. He's a monster; he's going to be a monster. When he plays with that type of intention it really helps our team."
The incipient Scottie/Kawhi was star-like in his 33 minutes, fulfilling with a blithe spirit the dreams of the Bulls. Though Williams denied he's deferred to his elders this season, it's seemed obvious he has given the interval between his abilities and his activity.
Williams has shown a sure shot and sangfroid, especially for a teenager. Friday he showed a lot of the rest with a full court journey and score, post spins and scores, several slam dunks off passes and follows, a kid only numerically.
"That would be, role wise, the kind of game that I would like to see him do," said Donovan. "Where he's attacking downhill, he's rebounding, he's physical, he's playing around the basket, he's taking his pull-up jumper when he's got it. He was aggressive playing downhill and we need that from him because it gives us more options and get to the free throw line."
The NBA has had an influx of high character young people, and Williams clearly is another. It's almost impossible to get him to answer a question without him thanking everyone on the team and coaching staff, crediting them for any success he might have had while blaming himself for any failure and promising to work harder and do more.
"Like I said," Williams reiterated in a favorite phrase, "a huge credit to my teammates, to my coaches that keep whether it's a turnover or a bucket, they're just instilling confidence in me and that goes a long way. So huge shoutout to those guys. But I think for me it's just a focus point and I have to get better at that throughout the season, and I think I will."
Donovan called the first play of the game this time for Williams and though the Bulls fell behind early, Williams' team high nine first quarter points that led to 70 percent shooting enabled the Bulls to get within 33-31 after one.
"There were just driving lanes for me to attack," Williams said. "And my coaches and teammates have the utmost confidence in me as a player and as a person. So I just took those opportunities. When I come to the bench, whether I get a bucket out of it or I turn it over and we don't get a shot up, it's always just, ‘Keep attacking. Keep being aggressive.' Huge testament to those guys for instilling confidence in me and the coaches for challenging me. Just a testament to the coaching staff that we have and the players that we have in the locker room."
Who said Gen Z doesn't appreciate its elders?
One of those elders was Young, whose emergency presence early in the first with LaVine taking over ball handling duties sent the Bulls on a 23-10 run back into the game.
"That combination has been really good with Zach and Thad," said Donovan.
LaVine, though, would have just two points through three quarters and the Bulls trailing 92-81 going into the fourth.
"I think he (LaVine) continues to play the right way and tries to make the right basketball play," said Donovan. "He's got to find that balance. I think Zach's played well. But I also think for him to be aggressive early in the game, maybe not necessarily scoring or shooting, but attacking and playing downhill, we need more of that from him I think earlier in the game."
LaVine recorded 26 points, and dished out eight assists against the Magic.
It's a Catch-22 for LaVine, the term emanating from a famous novel about World War II. So a pilot says he cannot fly dangerous missions because he's not sane. But he's told it's normal not to want to fly dangerous missions, so he has to be sane. LaVine the scorer has endured his paradox. He's been asked, especially with Coby White with 16 points uncertain facilitating, to assume more of that role and also make plays more often for his teammates, especially with teams now trapping and double teaming LaVine more. But then he needs to score earlier in the game like he did in the fourth quarter to give the Bulls a chance.
"It's tough, a balancing act," said LaVine. "I'm trying to go about it the right way, obviously, to help us win. These last couple of games have been tough. We've been right there but we haven't won. So just trying to figure out what's the right recipe to do it. As long as I'm playing the right way and the team, we're playing the right way, I'll be happy. I'll try to come out more aggressive either way. If it's with the pass, get the team to be more aggressive to get the first punch out there, whatever it is. Try to get my energy level up there in the first quarter to try to jump start us."
The Bulls had that fatal second quarter drought to fall behind 66-56 at halftime and stayed even through the third as Markkanen finally succumbed. LaVine then took over with Tomas Satoransky doing more playmaking. And despite being down 10 with eight minutes left, the Bulls almost pulled it out. Young had a huge hustle rebound to make four Magic players invisible and was fouled and then passed to a diving Williams for a dunk, LaVine cashed in a three on a Williams offensive rebound, drove for a three-point play and White made a three for a 114 tie with 1:35 left.
LaVine scored 24 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter.
Orlando's Evan Fournier made a jumper, White and Garrett Temple missed threes, the Magic made a few free throws and LaVine came up short on a drive. Orlando led 119-114 with 41.2 seconds left. Yes, far from over the way NBA games go these days. Fournier dribbled into a trap and lost the ball to a Young steal and then cleverly fouled LaVine on a three-point attempt. LaVine made all three to get within 119-117 with 26.1 seconds left. Vive la Fournier.
Fournier then almost lost the ball yet again. It was the Bulls first game this season with fans in the arena, Orlando allowing 3,535. None seemingly could curse in French.
Fournier barely got rid of the ball to rookie Cole Anthony, who was clutch with a pair of free throws for a 121-117 Magic lead with 16.4 seconds left. Orlando doubled LaVine and Williams got inbounds pass. But he didn't want it and passed to Temple who also didn't want it and passed to LaVine, who wanted it. He blew past Anthony and scored on a driving bank shot over Vucevic with 9.6 seconds left.
Vucevic inbounded to Fournier—oh no, Orlando coach Steve Clifford may have shouted—who took a few dribbles and stopped between Young and Temple. Temple appeared to get a grip on the ball for a tie up jump ball, but none was called. Orlando called time. And exhaled. Temple signaled to the official he had his hand all over the ball.
"The only explanation they gave they said it wasn't a jump ball," Donovan relayed. "Certainly wish that was the call against Portland (when Damian Lillard got a chance for the winning three). That would've been nice."
It wasn't as Vucevic with 3.5 seconds left was fouled on the to-anybody-but-Fournier inbounds pass.
"You can't do anything about it," said LaVine. "Sometimes it gets called a jump ball, sometimes it doesn't. It's not up for the refs to win the game, though. We have to put ourselves in a position to where that isn't a factor."
And now finding out how to fill some of those positions may be the biggest factor.