Vucevic and Carter Jr. duel in first matchup since trade, Bulls fall to Magic

Nikola Vucevic scored 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in his first matchup against his former team but Wendell Carter Jr. got the win as the Magic held off the Bulls 115-106. Carter Jr. had 19 points and 12 rebounds in his first game back in Chicago. Zach LaVine scored 30 points as well. The Bulls (22-32) will look to get back in the win column on Friday when they host the Memphis Grizzlies (27-25)

And then depression set in...

"We are not," Bulls coach Billy Donovan was emphasizing late Wednesday night, "in a position now to be looking at anybody and thinking we're better. It doesn't make a difference who we line up against. It could be a college team or a high school team. If we're not going to really be desperate and have that sense of urgency...

"I don't look at it all as Minnesota's record, Orlando's record; we don't have that luxury," Donovan continued. "Because you know what? Is Minnesota saying the same thing about us? Is Memphis saying the same thing about us? Is Orlando saying the same thing about us?"

You mean something like, "Sure we broke up our team and traded our best player to lose and we've lost six straight, the last two by 60 points combined, but no worries, now we've got the Bulls."

It looks like the Magic may have been as Wendell Carter Jr.'s and Michael Carter-Williams's Magic with a few rookies, undrafted free agents and 10-day contract invitees ran up a 23-point lead on the Bulls and hung on for a stunning 115-106 Orlando win.

It was the Bulls fourth consecutive loss and eighth in the last 11 since the dramatic Trade Deadline Day deals that brought the Bulls Magic All-Star Nikola Vucevic. Vucevic did his part with 29 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks. And Zach LaVine after a slow start that Donovan said he urged to try to get more players involved in the offense almost pulled out the game with 21 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter as the Bulls cut a 23-point deficit with 10 minutes left to 104-98 with just under four minutes left.

But there would be no miraculous escape from the loss—or the questions—as former Bull Carter had a pivotal putback of a miss and former Bull Carter-Williams stole a LaVine pass for an open dunk to give the Magic just enough legerdemain to pull this win seemingly out of nowhere.

But with the Bulls now 22-32 and even 10th place in the Eastern Conference for the final play-in spot looking shaky, not much for the Bulls, as Donovan painfully put it, should be expected or assumed.

Billy Donovan takes questions from the media following Chicago's loss to the Magic on Wednesday night.

"With maybe nine minutes to go, we are down by plus 20 and we finally had desperation and we played like a desperate team," agreed an exasperated Donovan. "My thing is you can't play desperate for nine minutes and expect to win an NBA game. We were not desperate and I think one of the great gifts in life is when you are desperate for something; and we're not.

"I know Zach made some shots and was really good offensively and got us back in the game," Donovan noted. "We were desperate on defense (to close). We were getting stops and we were flying around and we were covering for each other. Where was that for the first three quarters? I don't think we can make excuses for Covid, four in five nights, we've been on the road. It's the NBA; all we have to do is worry about basketball. We can't decide we want to be urgent for nine minutes in the game and then try to save a victory; it doesn't work like that."

Or the plants might die?

Certainly a season.

This was yet another that you'd say left a mark assuming someone felt the last one.

Donovan was all over the place trying combinations and again closed with Daniel Theis and Troy Brown Jr. for defense when Donovan said the Bulls seemed most engaged. With Thad Young starting and playing just 14 minutes with two points, Theis could be moving in there. Maybe more Brown for Tomas Satoransky, who had nine points and was outplayed by Carter-Williams.

The benched former lottery picks continued to disappear with Coby White playing 12 minutes and scoring two points and Lauri Markkanen playing 16 minutes and scoring six points. Patrick Williams showed a little more to start with five first quarter points and some offensive activity. He finished with nine points in 28 minutes, but by the end of the game he seemed too exhausted to even contest a James Ennis three. The Bulls were trailing 104-96 with 4:21 left and Ennis was five of five on threes. He was in the left corner as the Magic got an offensive rebound (13-7 in offensive rebounds with five by Carter). Ennis got the ball and paused. Williams stared at him from about five feet away, but didn't move. Ennis reluctantly shot since no one would defend him. He missed.

But then LaVine finally missed after making six straight just to at least make it competitive and give the Bulls some hope, if not momentum, preparing for a rematch with Memphis Friday.

Zach LaVine scored 30 points in the loss to Orlando.

"We know we're a better team," said LaVine yet again. "But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much talent you have. It's how you go out there and compete. It don't make a difference who's on the other team. You got to go out there and compete. I don't think we did that until the fourth today. I know it's redundant. I keep saying the same thing in all these interviews. I'm trying to keep spirits up in the locker room. If you don't go out there and compete, you're not going to be in a position to win.

"Guys are frustrated," LaVine acknowledged. "We know we're better and we're supposed to be beating some of these teams. We went on a little win streak and then we reverted back down to losing. You'd rather have guys frustrated than not. But that frustration has to turn into something on the court. You don't look forward in the calendar, but obviously these games are against us. We're talking big game. We've got to go out there and walk it, too."

It is a surprise because the Bulls did seem a lot better after the trades. Plus acquiring the rugged Theis, who with 16 points was the only Bull other than LaVine and Vucevic scoring in double figures. LaVine actually played more than eight minutes in the third quarter without shooting, which didn't work too well as the Bulls were outscored 39-19 after getting within 54-53 at halftime.

"That may have been on me a little bit," Donovan admitted, unusually candid for an NBA coach. "Not that I told him not to be aggressive, but I think one of the things that was starting to happen with our team, at least in the Memphis game, I thought we got really, really Vooch and Zach heavy in some ways. So we talked about getting in some ball movement and player movement."

It's correct in theory, if not so much for immediacy with this Bulls team with so many players, especially the young ones, apparently suffering from the changes, demotions and finding their places with the additions. The veterans have been encouraging and understanding, but cannot play for them. And obviously aiming for playing in some of those meaningful post season games, Donovan has relied on the veterans more.

"Coach is still trying to figure out the personnel to play, who plays well with each other," said Young. "I think we're just still trying to find our identity. Who are we going to be as a team? How we're going to play. What we're going to do? On the defensive side of the basketball as well. I think we still have a lot of, ‘What are we doing out there?' Or, ‘How are we supposed to do this?' It's a lot of thinking that's still going on. And trying to process how we need to play and what lineups need to be out there and how these lineups all work together.

"I wouldn't say it feels like rock bottom," Young responded to the media concern. "We're just not playing with any life right now. We have to come out and have a little bit more energy on both sides of the basketball. Offensively, we can score. We just don't get any stops. We have to figure out ways to get stops and get teams to where we can get three, four stops in a row and we can get out and score the basketball."

Nikola Vucevic shoots a hook shot over Wendell Carter Jr in the second-half of Chicago's game vs. Orlando.

The Bulls got a good start for a few minutes with Vucevic's scoring, and this time the Bulls were making threes, 11 of 19 in the first half. But it was this odd collection of Magic players who were winning the hustle points with second chance points, blocks, steals and 20 free throw attempts to nine for the Bulls. And no way the officials knew who they were. Except maybe for Carter, who'd fallen into lethargy with the Bulls before the trade for Vucevic. He finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds.

"Those last couple games I was in Chicago were definitely tough for me from an individual standpoint," Carter acknowledged. "Then coming to Orlando, kind of in a rebuild mode for them. Just to come in and impact winning. I think I've done that so far. I feel like just being in Orlando, it's an opportunity for me to showcase my game; it's an opportunity for me to show that I impact winning.

"It meant a lot coming back to a team you just got traded from," said Carter. "Especially being a new player on the team, you want to make an impact and influence winning. Tonight I think I did a great job of helping my team win. It was a bittersweet moment, for sure. I've got a lot of great memories with the Bulls team, the Bulls' coaching staff. But at the same time I understand it's a business. We can laugh and giggle all before the game, but once the game starts it's go time."

And the Bulls were gone.

Video highlights from Chicago's Wednesday night matchup vs. the Orlando Magic.

They got behind 33-22 after one quarter with six first quarter turnovers, three by White. Getting back within one at halftime seemed to signal they were going to take this one seriously. Until that devastating third quarter. Vucevic had 11 points, LaVine didn't shoot, the bench had one basket and it was 93-72 Orlando.

The lottery destined Magic pushed their lead to 95-72 when LaVine seemed to acknowledge there wasn't much moving, cutting and successful other shooting going on. So he scored or assisted on 22 of the next 24 Bulls points. LaVine also led the team with seven assists and made six of 12 threes. We know it's better for the team if they all contribute. But what if they don't? Or can't? After all, they had their chances.

"You could see we were behind defensively on just about every single play," admitted Donovan. "Whatever reason whether it was transition or guys coming off screens or late to defensive rebounds, late on rotations. We were just late. That urgency, that desperation was just not there at the level that it needs to be for our team."

Because then depression could set in again.