Bulls fall to Magic

Despite taking the lead at halftime, the Bulls were held by the Magic to 41 second half points, 14 in the fourth quarter. The Bulls fell 103-95.

The magic disappeared in Orlando. This usually happens to the Magic in the playoffs and a family of five waiting in line for Space Mountain on Christmas break. This time it was the Bulls trying to conjure up three straight wins on the road for the first time in almost eight years and alakazam their way into the last Eastern Conference playoff slot. But presto chango it was another disappearing act as the Bulls Monday lost 103-95 to the Orlando Magic.

The long-armed, active Magic made Bulls super scorer Zach LaVine vanish in the second half, three of 16 shooting after five of 10 for 15 first half points. LaVine did lead the Bulls with 26 points and added eight rebounds plus seven of the team's 15 free throws and the most bloody lips. Lauri Markkanen sat out the first half of the fourth quarter, got one shot after that and finished with 10 points. Kris Dunn had three early steals and defense that got the Bulls off to a 9-0 start. And Tomas Satoransky did have another excellent shooting game with 20 points and four of five threes. But this time the Bulls were on the sacrificial end of the turnover/pressure game, Orlando with 10 steals, 13 blocks and forcing 17 Bulls turnovers.

BullsTV recap of Bulls vs. Magic

The athletic Magic held the Bulls to 41 second half points, 14 in the fourth quarter and kept the Bulls at arm's length as the Bulls couldn't get within one possession the last eight minutes.

"They stifled us at the rim," acknowledged Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "(Terrence) Ross got away from us a little bit (26 points and six threes). We had open shots that we could make, open threes that we could make, and that's kind of the battle of wills. Can we make enough plays offensively to win the game? Both teams are very good defensively."

The Magic was better, and also suddenly become a significant rival since Orlando got more comfortable in the final Eastern Conference playoff position at 13-17. The Bulls are 12-20.

A Bulls win would have put them eighth, so this becomes a race. The Magic suddenly has a vital edge if it should end in a tie. The teams play just three times this season, the last two in March and April. Head to head play would be decisive with the top seven teams now with winning records.

"I thought our defense was pretty good," said Boylen. "We held them to 103. One hundred and three on the road is good. We've got to do a better job of scoring the ball."

Perhaps Bulls players were a bit tired in the final game of a nine-day trip. They play next Saturday against Atlanta in the United Center.

Though the Magic with veteran coach Steve Clifford was effective in releasing the pressure the Bulls had been applying in pick and roll that had helped vault them to the top 10 in the NBA in defensive efficiency. The Bulls have trapped the standard pick and roll play to produce a league leading turnover rate.

Orlando was effective in two ways. Its guards led by the rejuvenated Markelle Fultz with 13 points played faster and got deeper in the paint with the dribble, limiting the Bulls perimeter pressure. Perhaps more significantly, Orlando utilized its size to both go into the post and seek out mismatches, a specialty of Clifford's. Nikola Vucevic did so to score 21 points.

Though it was on the defensive side where the Magic turned the game.

LaVine did have an inefficient second half, though that was more because of the way Orlando constantly double teamed to get the ball out of his hands. It left Satoransky with more opportunities, and his two threes early in the third quarter gave the Bulls a 60-54 lead. But there wasn't much more offensive help as the Bulls fell back in love with the three-point shot, attempting 37 and just 15 free throws, zero fourth quarter free throws with 25 shots.

Often a view of the box score would suggest biased officiating. But this was a scenario where the Bulls had trouble seeing the rim from up close. Mo Bamba (four blocks) and Jonathan Isaac (three blocks and four steals) are unusually elastic players. Aaron Gordon, a famous dunk contest rival of LaVine's, remains a top athlete. It's not an exceptionally athletic Bulls team other than LaVine. So particularly in the second half, the Bulls were repeatedly thwarted by active Magic players simply staying in front with arms extended. The ball would invariably find its way back to LaVine for a late clock bailout attempt.

His magic went poof.

"They blocked a lot of shots," noted Markkanen. "It's not just the shots, but the passing lanes. They got a lot of deflections. They are a long team and we knew that coming in, but I think we need to do a better job with our passes, be on time, on target and execute."

And with the loss returns some familiar themes, namely anyone seen Lauri Markkanen?

The Bulls had that exceptional start with Dunn even stealing the first pass of the game. He also finished with eight points, five rebounds and six assists and had the Bulls leading 20-11 on a lob pass for a Wendell Carter Jr. dunk, Carter's second straight. With the Magic coming off four in a row in the Western Conference, it seemed like a chance to steal a win. The Bulls ball movement continued to be quicker and their moves sharper, though the Magic tied the score at 28 after one quarter using its size inside.

Watch Wendell Carter Jr. dunk against the Magic

Markkanen then seemed to get going a bit with a pair of second quarter threes as the Magic crowded LaVine and he passed. The Bulls led 54-51 at halftime. Orlando eased back ahead with Dunn going out with four fouls and stayed ahead 83-81 after three quarters despite a nice sequence from Daniel Gafford to counter the Orlando insiders.

"We had to play over the top of them and I thought we had some opportunities that just didn't go for us," said Boylen.

The Magic began to take control opening the fourth quarter as Ross got free yet again and Thad Young had a pair of attempts blocked. Boylen rushed his starters back with Orlando going ahead 90-83 with 9:09 remaining. But he left Markkanen out and stayed with Young, who did make a three on a deflection from a block of a LaVine drive. Markkanen finally got back in the game with six minutes left and the Bulls trailing 95-89. But he would get just one attempt the rest of the game.

Perhaps Markkanen wasn't at his best, though how would you also know if he rarely touched the ball? It's been the real coach's challenge of this season. Talk about your flashing lights.

The Magic did enough with a couple of hocus pocus back door cuts and posts to hold off the Bulls the last few minutes. It became the basketball version of the little kid in the cartoon wildly swinging his arms while the big kid merely held him away with one arm. I recall Tom Meschery trying to fight Wilt Chamberlain once like that, which is another story. LaVine did finish a pair of drives late and Dunn added one. But Carter and Satoransky were denied inside and the Bulls two-game winning streak, abracadabra, merely just disappeared.

Until the next time, ala peanut butter sandwiches! It's Chicago, make it ala Vienna sausage!