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Bulls fall to Magic in OT, 114-108

It warily entices you with its mystery when you go to Orlando, and then extends you with its sudden free falls, the ups and downs, rises and descents amidst the sounds and stirring sights. Your imagination races and you can lose yourself in a wondrous land without boundaries. They call it the Tower of Terror at Disneyworld.

It was for the Bulls just another twilight, heart stopping thrill ride against the Orlando Magic, and a third consecutive excruciating defeat this season, this time 114-108 in overtime after DeMar DeRozan missed a game-winning attempt with 2.6 seconds left in regulation. It comes after earlier Magic wins on a Paolo Banchero bucket at the buzzer and a few days later Franz Wagner’s three-point play with 20 seconds left to give Orlando the lead.

And it was Franz Wagner again Saturday, leading all scorers with 36 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter and then a putback layup to begin overtime and a slick assist for a Goga Bitadze layup that got the Magic off to a six-point overtime lead that kept the Bulls distant enough the rest of their loss.

“Definitely tough game, a game that obviously meant a lot for us trying to catch them,” said Nikola Vučević, who had 26 points and 17 rebounds, nine offensive and three steals against his former team. "They played well in the first half. They were up and we kind of took control in the second half. Early in that fourth, Wagner hit those two threes (to erase a 92-85 Bulls lead with nine minuets left that had been 11 late in the third quarter). A lot of back and forth after that. DeMar had a good shot (to win), doesn’t go in and in overtime we didn’t execute well enough, missed a lot of shots; the offensive glass hurt us and at the end.

“We battled but just came up short,” said Vučević. “For sure the (All-Star) break will do us good, but we definitely have enough for the next two games. They are huge. The Atlanta game (Monday) is big because they are right behind us (10th in the East). And Cleveland (Wednesday) we haven’t beaten in a while. Just got to find a way the next two games to finish the best we can, reset in the break and get right back at it.”

Because the Bulls lost an opportunity against the Magic, who are 29-24 and seventh in the conference. The Bulls dropped to 25-28, one game ahead of Atlanta. The Nets in 11th and out of the post-season tournament for now at 21-31. Though the Bulls still have designs on that sixth spot that avoids the first week play-in elimination games.

But the questions about the imminent All-Star break beginning for the Bulls after the Cleveland game arose with Bulls coach Billy Donovan conceding after the game that perhaps his players were somewhat fatigued given the recent injury absences of Zach LaVine and Patrick Williams and the limited return of Torrey Craig. LaVine is out for the season and Williams could return after the break when the Bulls host Boston Feb. 22.

“I give our guys credit because we really fought back to get the game and for giving ourselves a chance in the last possession,” said Donovan. “I thought Coby (White) had some good looks late. Just didn’t seem to really have legs there. I thought foul trouble really exhausted our team tonight, quite honestly. I thought we had some decent looks. Quite honestly in that overtime we were running on fumes a little bit with some of the minutes. But certainly, we had a chance in regulation.

“I thought Andre’s (Drummond four) fouls in the first half hurt the substitutions because we wanted to play bigger a little bit longer,” said Donovan. “I thought Ayo (Dosunmu) picking up five fouls was tough. Torrey (Craig) coming back trying to handle his (limited) minutes as best we can. Then you’re dealing with Alex (Caruso, playing career high minutes). These guys are playing through all that stuff. I felt like we were really tired coming down the stretch. I don’t want to use that as an excuse, but I just felt like we were gassed (with the minutes). The guys were exerting a lot of energy defensively, they were trying to block out rebounds. And they (Magic) are a long, athletic team.”

And perhaps left somewhat unexpressed is the Bulls, who play as regularly relentless as any team in the league, do so with DeRozan 34 years old, Craig and Vučević 33, Drummond 30 and Caruso joining him at 30 later this month. 

White played 45 minutes against the Magic, DeRozan 44 and Vučević 43. Caruso played the least of the Bulls starters at 36 minutes. Only two Magic players, Franz Wagner at 22 years old and Paolo Banchero at 21, played more than 30 minutes.

White and DeRozan are first and second in the NBA this season in total minutes, but neither said the playing time was an issue. DeRozan even said he was grateful to be playing as much. It’s why you really can root for these guys compared to some teams in the NBA. But it’s also potentially a worrisome pattern.

“I'm good,” insisted White, who had 14 points but shot 5-of-21, 1-of-8 in the fourth quarter and overtime. “Everyone is feeling it (this time of the season). So it is what it is. Got two more games on this road trip, and so we have to finish out strong. I just missed shots. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes that happens; gonna miss and sometimes going to make. I’m not putting it on minutes fatigue or anything like that. I never make excuses about playing too much.”

DeRozan is one of the most remarkable players in the NBA for his consistency and endurance. He’s second behind White in total minutes and basically tied for first in the NBA with Luka Doncic in minutes per game, though Doncic a decade younger has played six fewer games.

And if anything DeRozan was too strong shooting long that last shot regulation game winning attempt.

“Pretty sure everybody is tired,” said DeRozan. “It’s that time in the season where everybody is waiting for a break. We have to leave it all out there. I just always love hoopin’. At the end of then day, I love the hell out of hoopin’. Every opportunity I get. I play all summer for free. When it’s something that’s on the line and something for the season, something that’s counting, playing for the organization, the season, every second, minute, opportunity I can. I pride myself on not missing games.”

To paraphrase Jerry’s mom, "How could anyone not like him?"

DeRozan led the Bulls with 28 points and Dosunmu added 19 with a career-best five three-pointers. There was a lot to like about what the Bulls did after falling behind by 10 points in the second quarter but rallying to within 52-50 at halftime that include a 15-0 Bulls run into the third quarter that gave the Bulls a 59-52 lead.

Dosunmu was crucial in that interval with back-to-back threes, the third year guard growing more assertive with his shooting. Caruso’s three early in the third quarter put the Bulls ahead for the first time in the game. Dosunmu added two more corner threes as Magic defenders strayed, Dalen Terry angrily dunked a putback, White followed his own steal with a three and even as Orlando cut into their deficit the Bulls still led 86-80 entering the fourth quarter.

“Those two threes (Franz Wagner with just over eight minutes left) made, I think we could have been better (defensively) in those situations,” said Donovan. “The momentum changed there, I thought. Then it was back and forth there for a period of time. They took a lead and then we obviously were able to tie it back up (on a DeRozan driving three-point play with 45.9 seconds left) and get the ball for the last possession. I thought DeMar got off a pretty good look; hit the back of the rim. I thought it had a good line on it. Just didn’t make it. I thought in overtime the offensive rebounding by
them hurt us. And we just couldn’t really score enough.”

Last play, make or miss. It happens every night in the NBA. 

It went the Bulls way earlier in the week against the Timberwolves. This time it didn’t. That’s the NBA. Most games are close, and for the Bulls more than many as they played their league high eighth overtime game. They are 5-3.

The Magic appeared to take the game at 101-96 with 1:32 left in regulation following two Franz Wagner free throws.

The versatile 6-foot-10 forward whom the Magic selected in the draft with one of the Bulls picks from the Vučević trade — though Vučević again easily outplayed Wendell Carter Jr. — was a matchup misery for the Bulls throughout.

Orlando opened the game with Franz Wagner — his brother Moritz also plays for Orlando — targeting the shorter DeRozan and scoring easily. The Bulls then tried Dosunmu without much change and eventually also Caruso. It’s also likely why Donovan didn’t start his big guns together, Vučević and Drummond, because he likely worried about switching with Orlando playing the versatile big forwards. Which eventually did come to haunt the Bulls as Orlando put Drummond in the screen/rolls that ended with those Franz Wagner fourth quarter threes that Donovan said altered the momentum in the fourth quarter.

The Vučević/Drummond pairing has looked impressive and powerful at times. And perhaps a neo-matchup scheme for the Bulls in this stretch run. Sort of an NBA back to the future in playing bigger, more physical and slower. 

The new ’94 Knicks?

But Drummond did get two quick fouls against the Magic’s speed and four fouls in that first half. But if he does play with Vučević, and with DeRozan that leaves the Bulls with one of the more unathletic starting units in the league. Which is likely why Donovan opted for Dosunmu to start while missing LaVine and Williams.

Dosunmu also gave the Bulls a welcome and needed offensive and three-point shooting boost with his distance shooting, which is lacking with Vučević, Drummond and DeRozan. In addition, when Drummond plays big minutes that usually means fewer for Dosunmu given Donovan’s reliance on White and Caruso.

Though the Bulls seemed to have it under control in this game given their attacking style of play.

The Bulls forced 17 turnovers for a season-best 31 points, had 10 steals and six blocks, Caruso with four of the six. Though I still maintain they are steals. The Bulls had 18 offensive rebounds and 20-11 on second chance points, and the Bulls did have six offensive rebounds of their own in overtime to offset the Magic on the boards. But Orlando was daunting in overtime with big men Bitadze and Jonathan Isaac both playing the entire overtime as Isaac had three important offensive boards. The Magic also made a nice second half defensive adjustment to put the 6-foot-11 Isaac, who has missed most of the last three seasons injured, against the smaller DeRozan and thus limited DeRozan’s late shot attempts.

The last one in regulation was of some contention since it seemed events were going for the Bulls.

After those Franz Wagner free throws with 1:32 in regulation for a five-point Orlando lead, Dosunmu faked a three from the left corner and beat Cole Anthony baseline for a dunk. Franz Wagner forced a long three and missed and DeRozan registered that three-point play for the tie. The Bulls then cliches away buckled down and dug deep in forcing a wild late clock Banchero three with 20 seconds left and the game tied at 101.

The Bulls in a rare move, though not uncommon by NBA standards, eschewed the timeout and left it in DeRozan’s hands. Vice President of Basketball Operations Artūras Karnišovas Thursday after trade deadline reemphasized that DeRozan is the team’s closer.

Vučević rebounded, handed to Caruso, who handed immediately to DeRozan, who began easing up the center of the court. Isaac remained on DeRozan, who looked left toward White.

There’s been some debate lately, at least in the community, that White in his exceptional breakout season should be attempting the closing shots. But it seemed clear that White was telling DeRozan it was his ball.

“DeMar had it going, especially in the second half,” White later confirmed about his intentions. “Dos and Vooch had it going the majority of the game. Like I said, some nights you have it, and some nights not. For me, it was getting the ball to DeMar. He carried us in the fourth quarter. For me, he had the hot hand, he was playmaking, he was getting to his spots; he was making the right reads. Whoever got it going we are trying to win the game.”

White came right to try to screen the rubbery Isaac. Many expected DeRozan to try to dribble drive past Isaac. Though when White came over that seemed blocked a bit with Franz Wagner to DeRozan’s left and Isaac moving right.

Wagner switched to DeRozan moving to his left behind the arc. And now with the clock under four seconds, DeRozan pulled up beyond the three-point line.

“We were just trying to get a switch,” explained DeRozan. “I know Isaac was on me. I was trying to see if they’ll hopefully mess up on a switch with (using) Cole. It is a feel. That last regulation shot we got a stop. Tie game. Before that got the and-1. Coby struggled, missed a lot of shots that he normally makes.

“I came off and just lined it up,” said DeRozan. “It felt good. It was back rim. Situations like that, especially tie game, you just try to get a good look. Not try to force to get in there. I at least wanted to give us a shot. I know if I try to get in there (lane), they’re long, 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9. So just get a good look. It is tough. Nothing we can do about it now but go out there and get ready for Atlanta. Beat Atlanta, move on to the next one.”

Still quite the ride.

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