Postgame Report: Magic vs. Bulls

by John Denton

CHICAGO – Clearly better this season in nearly every way over the previous six rebuilding years, the Orlando Magic got a surprise earlier this week when head coach Steve Clifford scolded the squad for playing below expectations and insinuating that the group has actually underachieved for its collective talent level.

Rather than being motivated and encouraged by Clifford’s assessment, the Magic went out and lived up to that lukewarm billing by playing poorly on Friday in a game that can only be classified as a bad loss to the short-handed Chicago Bulls.

Lackluster both with their ball movement, help defense and purpose of play all game long, the Magic made matters even worse with dreadful starts to the second and fourth quarters and lost 90-80 to a Bulls team that was missing five players because of injuries.

``To me, it’s not just about the offense; we didn’t have the urgency, period,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who scored 24 points, but missed a 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining that could have made it a two-point game. ``It’s terrible, man, it’s terrible. There’s not much to say, to be honest.

``I’ve been here for six years now and we actually have a chance this year. We have to understand that,’’ Fournier added. ``But we’re not playing like a team that wants it, to be honest. If you just look at tonight – we just lost by (39 on Wednesday) and we don’t look like a team that is hungry for the playoffs. It’s that’s simple. Sometimes it just comes down to that.’’

Just two days removed from an unsightly 29-point home loss to San Antonio, Orlando (14-17) suffered arguably its worst loss of the season to Chicago (7-26). The Magic got standout center Nikola Vucevic back from his one-game absence due to the birth of his child, but it didn’t matter much on this forgettable night. Orlando shot 32.6 from the floor and made only eight of 33 3-point shots – and those numbers improved only after a strong four-minute stretch late in the game.

``(The Bulls) are a scrappy team and they play hard, but this is a game that we gave away,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who had a puffy right eye and a fingernail gash that stretched from his cheekbone to his chin. ``We didn’t do what we needed to do. We didn’t take care of defense. We just came out there with … I don’t know what we were doing. Obviously, we weren’t ready to play the game. That’s a disappointing loss.’’

Terrence Ross, Orlando’s best weapon off the bench all season, summed up the frustration-filled night for the Magic by missing 10 of his 11 shots and all four of his 3-pointers. After rescuing the Magic several times this season with his ability to pile up points in a hurry, Ross scored just two points and was a minus-10 on the scoreboard in his 28 minutes on the floor.

Clifford warned his team, which topped Chicago last week in Mexico City, that it would have to play well on Friday to defeat the Bulls for a second time in eight nights. Two days earlier, Clifford chided his team for its inconsistent play, telling the Magic that they had potential to be so much better. Apparently, those words did not register with a team that has struggled to gain much sustained traction thus far.

``Good, not over the top,’’ Clifford said Friday morning when asked for a summation of how his team had played thus far. ``I know people look at us and say – I read all the stuff – that we’ve done better than we should’ve, and yet I told (the team on Thursday) that I don’t agree with that. I see a ton of growth within our team.’’

The Magic actually led by one point after the first quarter, but they then missed their first seven shots to open the second quarter. Similarly, Orlando was within 10 at the end of the third quarter, but it misfired eight straight times to open the final period.

All of those struggles combined with Chicago standout Lauri Markkanen scoring 32 points spelled doom for the Magic. Injury-ravaged Chicago shot just 44 percent for the game.

``We were disorganized at both ends of the floor and the difference in the game was obviously Markkanen,’’ Clifford said afterward. ``He got loose, but those are coverage mistakes. Those were all pick-and-roll plays and they are mistakes that can’t happen. He made us pay.’’

Orlando trailed 78-63 with 7:53 to play – its largest deficit of the night – before the offense came alive to help it avoid setting the season low for points in a game (76 last week in Dallas). Vucevic scored 10 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough to rescue Orlando on this night.

Vucevic finished with 19 rebounds to go with his 19 points. Fournier chipped in six assists and five 3-pointers to go with his 24 points.

``Not enough to win at this level,’’ Vucevic said when asked if the Magic’s urgency level was as high as it needed to be. ``We started off the game with a few turnovers. We just didn’t play the game the right way on either end to win the game. We missed a lot of shots, but we blew some coverages and we didn’t execute. We have to be better and tonight was a tough loss. WE play another one in a day-and-a-half and we have to turn this around. We’re three under .500, so we can’t afford any more losses.’’

Orlando rallied late in the game and got within 85-80 with 1:37 to play. However, Fournier missed a 3-pointer that could have made it a one-possession game.

Gordon finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, but he made only four of 17 shots, six of 10 free throws and he missed all three of his attempts from beyond the 3-point arc.

Orlando got just five points and three rebounds from starting small forward Jonathan Isaac, while point guard D.J. Augustin (eight points and two assists) made just two of nine shots.

Chicago was without top offensive threats Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis because of ankle injuries and Bulls’ head coach Jim Boylen revealed before the game that mercurial forward Jabari Parker wouldn’t be playing because ``he does not feel that his conditioning is where it needs to be for him to play tonight.’’ That was yet another blow for a Chicago team already without Denzel Valentine and Cameron Payne.

Friday’s game was a rematch between the Bulls and Magic after Orlando edged Chicago last week in Mexico City. In that game, Vucevic scored 10 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter and he broke a tie with a pick-and-pop jump shot with 28.1 seconds remaining.

The Magic will be off on Saturday before hosting the Miami Heat on Sunday at 6 p.m. The game against the rival Heat will take on more significance than normal since the Magic will have the opportunity to secure a season series victory and a potential tiebreaker with a victory. Orlando is 2-0 already against Miami, winning 104-101 at the Amway Center in the season-opener and 105-90 in Miami on Dec. 4 when they outscored the Heat 59-40 in the second half.

Down seven at the half, the Magic made little-to-no headway in the third period and headed into the fourth period trailing 73-63. Gordon scored seven points in the period and five of those came from the free throw line.

Orlando also got little – on either end of the floor – from centers Mo Bamba and Vucevic in the third quarter. Vucevic got dunked on by a driving Markkanen, while Bamba – owner of the longest wingspan in NBA history – surrendered a layup to 6-4 guard Shaquille Harrison in the final seconds of the third period.

The Magic were mostly sloppy and sluggish in the early going and fittingly trailed 46-39 at intermission. The Magic never seriously threatened the lead after losing it early in the second quarter.

Now, they must figure out a way to reverse a slide that again threatens the progress they made early in the season. Consistency has been elusive all season and Orlando will need to find some measure of it – in games and from game-to-game – to stay in the race for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

``It’s frustrating because you want to take steps forward,’’ Vucevic said. ``You don’t want take one or two steps forward and then a step backward. We can’t keep going back and forth. We just have to understand that we have to stay consistent with what works for us. We have a lot of ups and downs and we’re just not consistent yet. It’s 30 games in, which is a lot of games, but it is still kind of early, so it’s on us to figure it out.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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