By John Denton Dec. 20, 2017
CHICAGO – Asked for an injury update on his severely shorthanded team prior to Wednesday night’s tipoff, Frank Vogel quickly came to the realization that his Orlando Magic were without three of the players from the starting lineup on Opening Night back on Oct. 18.
Of course, Vogel was already well aware of that fact considering that those injuries have played a major role in Orlando’s recent slide. Then, the Magic coach pointed out that while his team has been beaten and beaten down by the debilitating injuries, they are far from broken – regardless of how dire things looked on Wednesday in an ugly 112-94 loss to the Chicago Bulls.
``We’re without three of our Opening-Night starters, but our guys are fighting and competing,’’ Vogel said. ``The professionalism has been great. We understand (the state of the team) and understand where we’re at, but sometimes teams go through injuries and take some losses. You’ve just got to compete and fight and hopefully hang in there and get a few wins here and there and stay in the fight and the race. You have to understand that it’s a long season.’’
Orlando (11-21) has now dropped six straight games. On this night, the Magic never led and trailed by as much as 30 – both of those facts affected by the team’s poor execution at the end of quarters that allowed the Bulls to extend their lead each time. Orlando was particularly poor defensively, yielding 50 percent shooting and 11 3-pointers to Chicago’s youthful roster.
The last thing that the Magic need now is bad news and they got some midway through Wednesday’s lopsided third period when prized rookie Jonathan Isaac started limping on his troublesome right ankle. Isaac, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft who had some dazzling highlights early in the game, was removed from the game when he started noticeably hobbling and did not return. He was playing in just his second game – and on another minutes’ restriction – after missing 17 straight games from Nov. 12 through Dec. 16 because of a sprained right ankle. Much to the relief of the Magic and Isaac, X-rays on the ankle after the game were negative for bone fractures.
``I’m going to be fine and it’s not even close to what it was the first time. This is just a little tweak, so I’m OK,’’ Isaac said. ``I just feel like I came down awkwardly and kind of had that pinch in my ankle.’’
Chicago (10-20) has become one of the surprise stories of this NBA season what with the way it has dug out of a horrendous start to the season. Once 3-20, a Bulls team that unloaded Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in the offseason has now won seven straight games. The Bulls are the first team in NBA history to follow up a double-digit losing streak with a winning streak of more than five games.
Point guard Elfrid Payton, who played a spirited game with 14 points, eight assists and six rebounds, said the Magic have more than enough talent to beat a young team like Chicago despite all of their injuries.
``Man, no excuses and we’ve got to play harder, play better and have more attention to detail,’’ said Payton, who was challenged by Vogel before the game to help pick up the slack of the missing starters. ``When you are playing undermanned, you just have less room for error. You’ve got to accept that challenge.’’
In addition to missing starting guard Terrence Ross (sprained knee), the Magic were also without their top two scorers in Aaron Gordon (calf strain) and Evan Fournier (ankle sprain). Fournier worked out on Tuesday and Wednesday and could be close to returning, while Gordon attempted to stay off his feet as much as possible to rest his leg.
``Obviously, if I’m doing this I’m going in the right direction and it’s getting better,’’ said Fournier, who go in some vigorous sprint work prior to tipoff on Wednesday. ``There’s not much to say, honestly. It’s just about staying at it and doing whatever I have to do now to get back on the court. One day I’ll be back, one day.’’
As for Gordon’s calf strain that kept him out of a second straight game on Wednesday, Vogel had this to said: ``It is feeling better (for Gordon), but he’s not ready to play yet. He’s frustrated after having a concussion and missing a few games and it’s eating him alive not being out there.’’
Nikola Vucevic contributed 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while D.J. Augustin chipped in 14 points off the bench, but it wasn’t nearly enough production for a Magic offense that shot just 38.6 percent and made only five of 27 3-pointers.
Mario Hezonja, who set career highs in points (28) and 3-pointers made (eight) on Sunday in Detroit, once again struggled with his consistency and finished with 12 points. He didn’t make his first 3-pointer until the closing seconds after three misses. He was pulled from the game in the third period after missing an assignment on an after-timeout play call, but returned in the fourth to close out the game.
Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, two players involved in a preseason fracas that left the former with a fractured face, once again formed a dynamic team off the bench for the Bulls. Mirotic scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Portis scored 14 points. The two big men combined to make four 3-pointers. Denzel Valentine made three 3-pointers and scored 16.
The Magic, who will be back in action on Friday at the Amway Center against the New Orleans Pelicans, have dropped both meetings against the Bulls this season. When the Magic fell to the Bulls back on Nov. 3 they were four games above .500; now, they are 10 games before .500 and fading fast.
``We just weren’t communicating well (defensively) and we didn’t follow the game plan on the switching with Mirotic and Portis,’’ Augustin said. ``We just didn’t execute on defense.’’
Added Vogel: ``We’ve got to play above ourselves right now, really, to get a win. We didn’t play a great basketball game. … A lot of our shooters are out and we need guys to knock down shots. You score 54 points in the paint, that usually wins a game for you, but we couldn’t knock down perimeter shots most of the night and we didn’t guard well.’’
Theoretically still in the game at the half while trailing by just 11, the Magic let the game get completely away from them in an unsightly third quarter. As the Magic were missing seven of their first nine shots after halftime, the Bulls were busy extending the lead to 16. And by the time Chicago had crafted a 31-18 edge in the third, the Magic found themselves in a staggering 90-66 hole.
The Magic’s effort and intensity have to go up dramatically in these instances where they are lacking several key players, Augustin said.
``Guys have got to step up and it’s an opportunity for guys to play and play a lot of minutes and we’ve got to be ready,’’ Augustin said. ``The NBA is about stepping up and being ready when your opportunity comes.’’
Disastrous endings to the first and second quarter proved to be the difference in the first half and allowed the Bulls to take a 59-48 lead into intermission. Chicago scored the final six points of the first quarter and the last five points of the second period against Orlando’s shaky defense.
``We’ve got to close out quarters, especially those last two minutes,’’ Payton said. ``You look at those few minutes – that’s the difference in the game. We’ve got to do better at closing out quarters.’’
Quite possibly, the best sign of the night early on for the Magic was the way that Isaac played. Limited to just 16 minutes in his return on Sunday, Isaac had more freedom on Wednesday and he used his athleticism and length to get free for points. He outran the Bulls down the floor for his first basket in more than a month and later he converted a nifty, left-handed finger-roll around Mirotic for a second basket.
He finished with four points and an assist in nearly 14 minutes, but his night ended with a limp – a familiar theme now for the injury-ravaged Magic.
``I was able to go up and down two more times (after the ankle injury), so it’s a little bit of both,’’ Isaac said as far as being frustrated and encouraged. ``I came back and put some ice on it and I think I’ll be fine.
``I thought we played hard for stretches and then we just kind of went with the wave of giving things up,’’ the rookie added, referring to the one-sided second half. ``I know that we can do so much better, myself included, and we’ve just got to get back to it.’’
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