The Bulls are back home at the United Center this evening to tip-off 2019 against the Orlando Magic in the third of four games scheduled between the two this season. Last month Chicago and Orlando battled twice, with each winning once. In the most recent get-together Lauri Markkanen went 4-of-6 from behind the 3-point arc on his way to netting 32 points to lead Chicago to a 90-80 victory here at the UC. The second-year Finn led five Bulls who posted double-figure scoring totals, including backup center Robin Lopez (14) and starting point guard Kris Dunn who chipped in a dozen points, as well as eight rebounds and seven assists. Evan Fournier led Orlando with 24 points, going 5-of-10 from downtown, while big man Nikola Vucevic recorded 19 points, to go along with a season-high-tying 19 rebounds and four blocked shots. Vucevic comes into tonight averaging 20.3 points and 11.9 rebounds per game. The 7’0”, 260-pound pivot has so far led (or tied) the Magic in scoring 14 times and rebounding 27 times.
Others Magicians worth keeping a close eye on are high-flying forward Aaron Gordon (15.3 points, 7.6 rebounds), and shooting guard Evan Fournier (15.0 points, 3.7 assists and 3.2 rebounds), as well as a pair of former Chicago point guards in D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant.
Augustin has been more than solid this year, averaging 11.5 points and 4.9 assists while shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range. Up until this past Monday he started every game, however the savvy former Texas Longhorn suffered an ankle injury against Detroit this past Sunday after recording a game-high 26 points to lead the Magic to a 109-107 victory over the Pistons. With Augustin in street clothes the next day against the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando had trouble keeping pace as All-Star Kemba Walker torched the twine for 24 points to lead the Buzz to a 125-100 blowout victory.
The Magic currently list Augustin as questionable tonight against the Bulls. If he’s unable to answer the bell, they will likely look to Grant to take his place behind the wheel. The former Golden Domer so far hasn’t enjoyed much success, contributing just 4.3 points and 3.2 assists on the year.
The Bulls have split their last eight games, with a couple of hard-luck losses mixed in. The last time the Bulls took the floor they fell 95-89 on the road against Toronto. Markkanen scored 18 points and pulled down 10 rebounds while rookie Wendell Carter Jr. posted a double-double of his won with 16 points and 11 boards.
Under Head Coach Jim Boylen’s direction Chicago’s offensive scheme is to slow things down, grinding the shot-clock to just under five seconds before shooting to force opponents to burn extra energy on defense. For this arrangement to work the Bulls have to keep all five players involved in the action. They cannot allow their attack to transform to a series of one-on-one contests. The ball has to freely jump from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force the defense to scramble and open paths to the hoop and free up shooters hovering around the 3-point arc for uncontested jumpers.
Chicago must also be smart with the ball and avoid risky passes that can easily be picked-off and ignite Orlando’s offense by letting them speed up the pace by getting into transition. Aaron Gordon, in particular, thrives in a fast and open court game. To that end another important aspect will be Chicago’s ability to limit Orlando effectiveness on the glass and score second-chance points. The Magic are blessed with a wealth of size, strength and athleticism in Vucevic, Gordon and rookie center Mo Bamba. Chicago’s post players, especially Carter Jr, Lopez and Markkanen will need to keep Orlando’s giants off the glass as much as possible this evening in order for the Bulls to come away with a win.