CHICAGO – Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford preaches to his team all the time that most NBA games are won or lost before they even tip off. Teams that are the most focused, best prepared and determined to ``play with a purpose’’ – as Clifford likes to put it – often set the tone and rack up victories.
Clifford’s Magic certainly played with a purpose on Wednesday, breaking the will of the Chicago Bulls early in the night with their offensive execution and their defensive fight. Ultimately, Orlando’s stellar ball movement, confident shooting and smothering defense allowed it to erase the bitter memory of an ugly loss in Chicago two weeks ago and notch an impressive victory.
Nikola Vucevic led a balanced offensive attack with 22 points and the Magic handed out 31 assists and defensively swatted nine shots in a thorough 112-84 beatdown of the Bulls at United Center.
``Tonight was just a good effort overall and the focus was really good – whether it was defensively or offensively, we were just on point with pretty much everything,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who had 13 points and seven assists.
Orlando (17-20) beat the Bulls (10-28) in Chicago for the first time since Jan. 12, 2015, ending a streak of six consecutive losses in the Windy City. The Magic got difference-making point guard D.J. Augustin back from a one-game absence because of an ankle injury and he had a big impact on an Orlando offense that shot 57.9 percent from the floor and drilled 11 3-pointers.
``A good response … the guys were disappointed with the way that we played in Charlotte (on Monday) and I think that’s the best all-around game that we’ve played in a while,’’ Clifford said. ``When we walked out of the (morning practice), I told a couple of the coaches, `I don’t know if we’re going to win, but we’re going to play well.’ We were very focused in the shootaround and you could tell that we were going to have good energy.’’
Aaron Gordon had a dazzling all-around night, contributing 18 points, a career-high nine assists and seven rebounds offensively and defensively shutting down Chicago standout Lauri Markkanen (14 points). It was Markkanen who scored 32 points two weeks ago when Chicago beat Orlando, 90-80.
``People we’re knocking (shots) down,’’ Gordon said of the best passing night of his career. ``I know that I have to do my work early with my size, start backing guys down and draw doubles. Then, when I see the double, I just try to make the easy play and guys were knocking down the shots.’’
Playing on an ankle that is still not 100 percent sound, Augustin had 10 points and six assists in 25 minutes. Analytics have shown all season that the Magic are a dramatically more potent offense with Augustin on the floor and that certainly was the case again on Wednesday with the 6-foot, 183-pound guard running the show.
A Magic starting five that was totally outplayed two nights earlier in a 25-point loss in Charlotte was dialed in and dominant. Vucevic (plus-22 in 26 minutes), Gordon (plus-21 in 37 minutes), Augustin (plus-17 in 25 minutes), Jonathan Isaac (seven points, three rebounds, two blocks and a plus-16 in 25 minutes) and Fournier (plus-11 in 30 minutes) helped lay the foundation early in each half for the rout.
``That was a really great win for us, and we started out the game really well on both ends of the floor,’’ said Vucevic, who added 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. ``I think when we start a game like we did defensively, it gives us a lot of energy. And we were able sustain it for 48 minutes. It was a great win and we really needed to win this game.’’
Terrence Ross, who missed 10 of 11 shots in Chicago two weeks ago, scored 15 on six-of-nine shooting, while reserve center Mo Bamba had great activity and finished with 10 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots.
``Coach (Clifford) has given me free reign and the green light to go and block everything,’’ said Bamba, who followed up his jaw-dropping block of a Malik Monk shot in Charlotte on Monday with three more swats on Wednesday. ``Now, I’m trusting my teammates to go sink when I go to block a shot. It feels good as a player when you have a coach saying, `I trust you to go get whatever (defensively).’ (Clifford) told me today in shootaround, `I really want you to go after (shots),’ so I talked my teammates and they said, `we’ve been wanting you to go after them.’
``It’s just a matter of having that presence and being there (in the middle),’’ Bamba added. ``I’m not going to block every one of them, but I definitely can alter some.’’
Orlando smashed the Bulls from the start, leading by as much as 16 points in the first quarter and by 21 in the second quarter. The Magic scored the first 11 points of the third quarter, building their lead to as large as 90-60 in the period.
Chicago shot just 41.9 percent from the floor. The Bulls turned the ball over 11 times and the Magic turned those errors into 15 points.
The Magic were facing the Bulls for the third time in 21 days and for the second time in Chicago in as many weeks. That most recent meeting was rather unsightly as Orlando shot just 32 percent from the floor and lost 90-80 in one of its worst losses of the season.
Wednesday’s game was the second of the Magic’s six-game, 11-night road trip that will take them to all four U.S. time zones. Orlando lost in Charlotte on Monday, but it bounced back to play well in Chicago on Wednesday. The remainder of the trip will see the Magic playing games in Minnesota (Friday), Los Angeles Clippers (Sunday), Sacramento (Monday) and Utah (Wednesday).
Since suffering a four-game losing streak – tied for the worst skid of the season – the Magic have responded by winning three of the last four games. In addition to soundly throttling Toronto and Chicago, the Magic edged Detroit on a shot at the buzzer by Fournier.
``It’s good, but the next four games are going to be hard,’’ Fournier said. ``With all of the travelling and games, it’s going to be tough, but (Wednesday) was a really good game for us and it gives us confidence for the rest of the trip. We just have to keep playing this way.’’
Up 62-45 after a dominant first half, Orlando turned the game into a laugher by scoring the first 11 points of the third period. Late in the third, as the Magic continued to move the ball effectively to find open shooters and the Bulls struggled to find much breathing room, Orlando had a commanding 90-60 lead.
``We’re playing in a league where players are uber-talented and guys can get off a shot at any time, but one of the underrated thing of this league and of our team is our passing ability,’’ Bamba said.
Orlando came out dialed in and ready from the jump on Wednesday, outplaying the Bulls on both ends of the floor and leading 62-45 at the half. Not only did the Magic shoot a stellar 64.1 percent from the floor and make seven of 12 3-point shots, they handed out 19 assists to set up their 25 first-half field goals. Orlando came into Wednesday’s game ranked sixth in the NBA in percentage of field goals set up by assists (62.6 percent) and that number was on the rise after an impressive first 24 minutes.
As good as the Magic were offensively, they were nearly as dominant on the defensive end. Four players had steals and three players had blocked shots in a first half when Orlando allowed the Bulls to shoot just 43.2 percent. The Magic defense turned the Bulls over six times, resulting in 11 points for Orlando.
In addition to being the Magic’s best scorer and rebounder all season, Vucevic has made strides defensively and that has helped Orlando’s team defense.
``I think it’s just about making better reads and kind of anticipating what can happen,’’ Vucevic said. ``It’s about me being in positions earlier and trusting that teammates will cover for me if I go and help. The way that we’re defending, it’s much simpler for me. I know exactly what I need to do and it’s easier for me to go and do my job.’’
Gordon (12 first-half points) made the Bulls pay inside when they tried checking him with smaller defenders. He feels that Orlando’s front line of himself, Vucevic and Isaac are starting to make their impact on both ends of the floor with their defensive length and their versatility offensively.
``It’s working because we’re starting to get into a rhythm,’’ said Gordon, who made eight of 14 shots on Wednesday. ``We were subbing (personnel) a lot early in the season, while trying to figure it out because of injuries. Now, we’re starting to catch our rhythm. We’d like to see (Isaac) more aggressive scoring the ball because it would take pressure off everybody else.’’
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