Bulls rally late but come up short against Orlando

Enough already with the happiest place on earth stuff with Orlando.

Because you know at some point it’s about vomiting and the kids going wild and that $14 hot dog. Which the Bulls surely experienced Sunday in a 113-98 loss to the Orlando Magic, sick about this roller coaster of a season with another bad loss after a good win, enduring the pain of the young legs and long arms of those Magic kids who swept the Bulls this season and at least the cost of effectively being able to clinch ninth in the play-in tournament. While also accepting yet another season failing to get above .500 as the Bulls dropped to 37-41 with four games left in the regular season.

“I don’t want to continue use the word consistency, but we’ve got to be able to fundamentally not beat ourselves,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan, alluding to a fatal 21 Bulls turnovers for 28 Orlando points. “If you wanted to say one thing I would look at, I thought we beat ourselves. 

“I’m not taking away credit from Orlando,” Donovan nevertheless insisted. “They played a really good game, and they deserved to win the game. They outplayed us, outcoached us, everything all the way through. But there was certainly a lot of things that we impacted and affected in the game.”

The Magic was basically better yet again with their young legs and long arms wrecking havoc on the Bulls offense as they’d basically done in each of those four games this season. That formula has been lethal to the Bulls this season, continuing to eclipse their hopes with a darkness that continues to block out their sunny hopes.

Along with the three-point shooting deficit, which wasn’t a factor with the Magic. Orlando’s 11-of-34 threes didn’t determine the outcome despite the Bulls making just 6-of-20 long ones.

But the Magic actually in the hunt for second place in the Eastern Conference with the Bucks and Cavaliers cratering, used their first-look-at-Disneyland enthusiasm to steal the game from the start, a 17-point Orlando lead by the end of the first quarter and still 17-points entering the fourth quarter. Until DeMar DeRozan shot it down to 96-90 with 6:49 left in regulation.

“You don’t want to take all the credit away from a team that forces that many turnovers, but we’re not going to win turning the ball over 21 times, and a lot of it was careless and sloppy,” insisted Donovan in not taking this one too well. “Our fundamentals needed to be a whole lot better than they were. DeMar is usually a pretty good guy taking care of the ball. So it’s a little bit uncharacteristic (seven turnovers, three in 90 seconds in the first quarter as Orlando was up double digits within six minutes). But there were plays by everybody I thought that contributed. It’s hard to score points and win a game when you do that.

“We were down by 18 or 19 and they fought their way back,” Donovan did point out. “We got to six or seven and called timeout and then it went from seven to 13 really quickly. But I thought that group (DeRozan, Andre Drummond, Ayo Dosunmu, Dalen Terry and Torrey Craig) really competed, was disruptive, got stops, was active with their hands, got some loose balls, helped us get out in transition. Obviously, DeMar (with 14 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter) got going. But as well as that group played we had too much to overcome; we were constantly fighting from behind, constantly.”

And never really seeming like a threat to succeed.

Though the good news at least for this part of the season is that even with the loss, the Bulls are in good position to at least open the play-in tournament at home April 17.

The Bulls have a one-game lead on Atlanta, which is 36-42.

But since the Bulls winning the season series 2-1 have the tiebreaker, the Hawks would have to finish a game ahead. Atlanta plays a desperate Miami team Tuesday and also the Pacers and Timberwolves fighting for position. The Bulls play the Knicks twice, but otherwise the eliminated Pistons and Wizards.

So assuming that holds, the Bulls will open the play-in tournament Wednesday April 17 in an elimination game against the Hawks, who did win in Chicago last week. The winner of that game visits the 7/8 losing team Friday. The 7/8 game is played Tuesday.

The NBA doesn’t say such things, but they basically don’t want the 9/10 teams in the playoffs. After all, since the 16-team playoff format began in 1984 until the play-in was introduced in 2020, teams finishing ninth and 10th were not in the playoffs. The play-in has kept more fans interested, and TV — and NBA headquarters — loves these mini-tournaments. But the league still gives the advantage to the 7/8 teams. They need to win one game while the 9/10 teams need to win two. And the 7/8 teams get more rest while 9/10 play Wednesday and Friday.

The winner of the 7/8 game opens the playoffs against the No. 2 team in the conference, which now is a battle among Milwaukee, New York, Orlando, Cleveland, Indiana Philadelphia and Miami. They are separated by three games with three or four games left for each.

The loser of the 7/8 game or the 9/10 winner — if the latter defeats the vanquished — gets a first round matchup with league leading Boston.

So the Bulls might be able to begin easing up some by the end of the week.

They still were pushing Sunday as DeRozan piled on another 40 minutes and Coby White even 38 despite being questionable with a sprained ankle. Alex Caruso didn’t play with his ankle and toe problems. Javonte Green started for him and had 15 points, but Green and Dosunmu were overwhelmed early in matchups against the long armed Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. The Orlando kids opened the game shooting over each as Orlando posted a 16-2 advantage on inside points with dunks and layups. The Bulls even made a pair of threes to one by the Magic, but trailed by 19 points late in the quarter.

Dosunmu and Drummond each had 14 points and White, refusing to give in to a variety of health issues lately, had 11 points. The season obviously is having its way with White, who is shooting 37% overall in his nine games back since his hip injury in Indiana and 31% on threes. Nikola Vučević had a tough night with eight points and 1-of-9 shooting as Donovan played his centers together in several stints. Drummond was the only Bulls with a positive plus/minus. But Orlando controlled the reserve scoring 43-20 as Markelle Fultz had 19 points. Starting Orlando guard Jalen Suggs outpaced the Bulls for 19 points. Franz Wagner missed most of the second half with a sprained ankle.

Then after that DeRozan eruption, Orlando had its lead back to 14 points two minutes later with Banchero going back to work over smaller Bulls defenders and then helping set up threes from Joe Ingles and Wendell Carter Jr. that quickly clinched the outcome. 

“We can’t play the Jekyll and Hyde game,” said DeRozan. “We have to find some consistency these last couple of games. We’ve just got to. We have to be desperate and have a desperate mindset. We need to leave it all out there on the floor. I think we have like (four) games left; we have to make sure we are trending in the right direction.”

DeRozan already has said he prefers to play, but if the Bulls, say, get to Friday in Washington with their place in the standings settled, you figure they’ll cut back on the playing time of at least White, Dosunmu and Caruso, who’ve played career minutes per game this season. Though, of course, the Bulls still do need some Atlanta losses. 

The Bulls could also use some wins, if also for some momentum and confidence.

But that was not to be almost from the start Sunday as it was a tower of terror from the young Magic, another of those long and athletic across the front line teams that often give the Bulls problems against their guard-oriented power forward lineup.

It was 21-6 Orlando less than eight minutes into the game after a Franz Wagner three, the Magic’s only one in the first quarter. Vučević responded with a 16-footer, so Orlando went right back with Suggs throwing a lob to Carter. Yes, ooop.

“I put (turnovers) on me,” said DeRozan. “That is very uncharacteristic of myself having seven turnovers. It is going to eat me up tonight. But I think all of us, we were just trying to do too much instead of making the simple (play). We were trying to make the simple harder than what it was. You have to give credit to them, too. They are a big team, length, size; they play extremely well.”

And then DeRozan did to begin the fourth quarter, and the way NBA games these days are a giant teeter-totter, and the way DeRozan just owns the fourth quarter you thought that maybe, like they say nearby in Disneyworld, dreams can come true. 

And then reality sets in and you feel like you waited an hour next to a guy whose shorts are sticking to his thighs. Nice to get out of there, especially for the Bulls.

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