Postgame Report: Magic at Bulls

By John Denton
Feb. 12, 2018

CHICAGO – Not long after his potential game-winning 3-point shot came up well short, resulting in another frustrating loss for the Orlando Magic, forward Mario Hezonja sprinted into the locker room, bypassed his dressing stall and pulled up a chair at the laptop in the center of the room.

Hezonja had led the Magic back into Monday’s game with a furious flurry of baskets and defensive plays late in the night, but he was only interested in reviewing what proved to be his final shot of the night. He knew full well that he wasn’t going to like what he saw – his 26-footer fell short of the rim – but he wanted to see footage of the shot again so that he could sear the moment into his memory bank.

``I almost slammed that laptop off the floor,’’ said a disgusted Hezonja after Orlando lost 105-101 to Chicago at the United Center.

Hezonja, Orlando’s rapidly blossoming forward, scored 14 of his team-high 24 points in the fourth quarter to send a charge into an otherwise sleepy and snowy night in Chicago. With the Magic trailing 93-75 with 8:23 to play, Hezonja led a spirited Magic run that sent a scare into the Bulls and the crowd of 18,611. Hezonja’s 3-pointer with 3:11 to play capped a stirring 23-3 burst by the Magic that gave them their first lead since the first quarter.

Chicago eventually got the game tied, but Orlando had the ball with 15.2 seconds remaining and a chance to win. A botched inbounds pass from Jonathon Simmons to Shelvin Mack resulted in a Zach LaVine steal and dunk to give Chicago a two-point edge with 12.4 seconds remaining.

When the Magic couldn’t get the defensive mismatch that they wanted – rookie Lauri Markkanen on Simmons – the ball went to Hezonja. Likely feeling the confidence from his late surge, Hezonja let fly a 26-footer that was on line, but short of the rim. Almost immediately after letting the shot go, Hezonja knew that he erred in not driving hard to the rim. Re-watching the play in the locker room only confirmed that to him.

``This is ultimately who I want to be – I want the ball in my hands at the sizeable moments,’’ said Hezonja, who has played the best basketball of his 2 1/2-year NBA career of late. ``This is definitely going to help me. I will watch it 100 times more and ask the coaches what they think and what my teammates think. But this is going to help me a lot.’’

The strong finish allowed Orlando (18-38) to somewhat salvage an otherwise disappointing night. Head coach Frank Vogel warned the Magic about being flat in his Monday morning talk with the team, stressing to them that consistency in effort and enthusiasm are some of the traits of winning teams. The Magic struggled to get stops much of the night before playing with great urgency late and putting themselves in position to potentially steal a victory.

``(Hezonja) was fighting and our whole team was fighting. To come back from 18 and take the lead, you’ve got to be proud of that,’’ said Vogel, whose Magic made nine of 19 shots with four 3-pointers in that spirited fourth quarter. ``A year ago in this building we lost by 50 – or something like that – and in this situation we could have let go of the rope, but we hung in there and kept fighting and gave ourselves a chance.’’

Winners of three straight as of late last week, Orlando for a second straight time and for a third time this season to the Bulls (20-36). That might not have been the case had the inbounds pass from Simmons to Mack not gone awry late in the night. With possession of the ball and the score tied at 101 with 15.2 seconds left, the Magic potentially had a chance to win it. However, a misread led to a steal and dunk for LaVine.

``It kind of caught me off guard and it was unfortunate that that happened for us, but a game doesn’t come down to that one play,’’ said Mack, who had five points, six assists and three rebounds in nearly 26 minutes. ``We made a lot of mistakes throughout the game that put us in that hole and we’ve got to do a better job earlier.’’

Evan Fournier had 22 points and five assists for Orlando, while Simmons added 14 points and five assists. Orlando shot 44 percent and made 10 3-pointers, while Chicago shot 45.5 percent against the Magic defense.

Rookie forward Lauri Markkanen, a player the Magic seriously considered drafting last June, scored 21 for the Bulls, which had lost eight of nine games prior to Monday. LaVine, who was in his 13th game back following an ACL tear late last season, scored 18. Bobby Portis, who had a game-tying 3-pointer after Orlando surged ahead 101-98, finished with 19 points and seven rebounds off the Chicago bench.

Fournier said Orlando’s haphazard focus on the inbounds play with 15.2 seconds to play ruined what could have been a signature victory for the squad. The Magic have played especially well of late in beating Boston, Cleveland, Minnesota, Miami, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Lakers, but Monday’s result – a fourth consecutive defeat to the rebuilding Bulls over the last two seasons – left Orlando frustrated.

``They denied the ball on the last two possessions and we didn’t get open because we didn’t execute the play well enough,’’ Fournier said. ``They were denying us and we were kind of sloppy not executing the play, thinking, `Let’s just get the ball in and then run the play.’ But they did a good job of denying us and it happens.

``But we fought and we got back into the game just by playing hard. We’ve got to learn from it,’’ Fournier added.

The Magic lost 105-83 to the Bulls on Nov. 3 when they were 6-2 early in the season but playing without two of their top three point guards. Orlando also lost 112-94 in Chicago on Dec. 20 when they were once again short-handed because of injuries. The two teams will play for the final time of the season on March 30 at the Amway Center.

Rather than fly home immediately after the game, the Magic chose to remain in Chicago and depart as a team on Tuesday. Instead of returning back in Central Florida after 2 a.m., the Magic have sought opportunities to get extra rest whenever possible. Monday’s game was the team’s fifth in eight nights and Orlando is hopeful that the extra rest will allow the Magic to be ready for Wednesday’s home game against the Charlotte Hornets.

Wednesday’s home game will be the Magic’s final game prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game. Aaron Gordon was originally scheduled to compete in the Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, but he dropped out because of his strained hip flexor injury.

Gordon missed his eighth straight game on Monday and the Magic were also without Nikola Vucevic (fractured hand), Jonathan Isaac (ankle rehabilitation) and Terrence Ross (knee sprain). Vucevic is targeting a return after the All-Star break, while the Magic are hopeful that Isaac will be able to return then also.

Aware that his team was playing for a fifth time in the past eight nights, Vogel tried being proactive on Monday morning when he lectured his squad about how consistency is a dominant trait of winners.

``Our ability to sustain (strong play) is part of the building of a winning culture,’’ Vogel said. ``And building winning habits is about not just doing it every other night or every third night; it’s about minimizing the nights that you are flat. Both times we’ve played these (Bulls) guys, we were definitely flat and didn’t play a good basketball game. I’m less concerned about what’s happened so far head-to-head (against the Bulls) and more concerned about continuing the high level of play that we’ve played with so far.’’

The Magic indeed fell flat – just as Vogel feared – throughout the early stages of the game, trailing by two at the half and falling behind by as much as 11 in the third period.

The deficit would eventually reach 18 points before the Magic came storming back. Down 93-75 with 8:23 to play, Orlando used a stirring 23-3 run – keyed mostly by the shooting and defense of Hezonja – to take a 98-96 lead that shocked the fans at the United Center. It was Hezonja’s 3-pointer with 3:11 to play that gave Orlando its first lead since the second quarter.

``Defense was the main reason (for the run) and that approach really started to work for us,’’ said Hezonja, who had three steals in the final period alone. ``We should have done that earlier, but we didn’t.’’

Hezonja said that looking back on his final heave from 26 feet, he should have driven the ball – especially considering the positioning of his defender. He vowed that he will be better next time in this position after working to learn from the loss.

``I’m (mad) that I missed,’’ Hezonja said. ``(Simmons) made a great read (in getting him the ball) and the rest is on me. I didn’t win for my team today and I’m extremely mad about it, but it’s going to serve as experience going forward in these clutch moments.’’

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