They dominated the Eastern Conference leading Orlando Magic in a going away 105-83 victory Friday. Their defense was exceptional, holding the streaking Magic 32 points below their season average and to a Magic franchise low three made free throws. They had seven players score in double figures with 48 percent three-point shooting and the second most inside points they’ve scored this season.
They were the Bulls?
Yes they were, 2-5 and here they come!
“Our grit and energy, intensity on the defensive end in the first quarter, I thought was excellent,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Then in the second half, to hold this team who’s been scoring it as well as anybody in the league, with the exception of Golden State, to 38 points. It just showed how locked in our guys were. Offensively, I thought we shared the ball, did a good job of getting the right guy the ball at the right times. It was a good, unselfish effort. You talk a lot in this business about team wins; this was a true team win.”
The Bulls hardly are whole, Zach LaVine still is a long way from a return and Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic remain out from the consequences of their altercation. But this time with Hoiberg’s starting move to David Nwaba looking good, Justin Holiday getting his head up and looking for the basket and Kris Dunn off the bench with a welter of three pointers and supportive defense, the Bulls broke from a 45-44 halftime deficit to dominate an Orlando team that had been one of the big early season surprise teams.
“It is the first game we have beaten a team by this margin,” noted Holiday, who led the Bulls with 19 points, 14 in the first quarter. “This is the first game we have had all the guys that play score the ball pretty well. Defensively, we did a great job. Guys played with energy. I think it was our best game as a team.”
The Bulls got 16 points from Nwaba, 13 points and nine rebounds from Lauri Markkanen, 11 points each from Dunn, Robin Lopez and Denzel Valentine and 10 points from Paul Zipser. Evan Fornier led Orlando with 21 points.
But it was the aggressive defensive effort that epitomized the play of the Bulls. This Bulls group without a dominant scorer who can create, at least without LaVine, is going to have scoring difficulties. More so when they settle for trying to win with three pointers, as they did again in the loss in Miami Wednesday to open this short road trip. The Bulls need a mixture of aggressiveness on drives and the three-point shot with perhaps a half dozen double figure contributors to manage enough offense. On the season, the Bulls came into the game last in scoring and shooting, the latter for too often settling for jump shots without offsetting penetration.
The Bulls finally adjusted against the Magic, and it proved successful this time.
Instead of running a weave and settling for perimeter three pointers, Holiday opened going to the basket and had 10 points in the first four minutes to carry the Bulls to a 15-4 lead.
“They have good players that haven’t performed at a real high level yet,” said Magic coach Frank Vogel. “They made shots and they made plays more than anything. They’re very physical with their screening and with their driving and credit them for playing a good offensive game.”
Yes, those Bulls.
Hoiberg inserted Nwaba into the starting lineup at small forward in Miami, and Friday Nwaba broke out. He is a small forward at barely 6-4, but he’s strong and athletic. Against Miami Wednesday he led the team with 11 rebounds, but was hesitant on offense. He attacks the basket with perhaps more verve than anyone on the team. Against the Magic he took the initiative with sharp drives off the left wing for scores.
Opposing game plans against the Bulls now, obviously, focus on Markkanen, and he got just 10 shot attempts, two in the last five minutes when the Bulls were ahead by 24. Though he did have a flying follow slam early in the game. But the Bulls didn’t need him as desperately this time with a more varied and active offense.
“We got off to a fairly good start and we didn’t get satisfied with that,” said Lopez. “When guys are out there playing hard and getting after it and doing it for each other, good things are going to happen for us. The wonderful thing is we have a lot of young guys that are willing to do that. We’ve had maybe one game where front to back you put up a putrid effort; otherwise, we have had games and we have had guys willing to go out there work and play for each other.”
It was a worrisome start, however, since Lopez was on the rare wrong end of a clash with the Magic mascot pregame.
Orlando came back to trail just 28-26 after one quarter even as Holiday had a fiery, driving left handed dunk and Dunn closed the first quarter with a three. Playing his third game since returning from injury, Dunn again came off the bench behind Jerian Grant. Grant was somewhat passive again early, but he came on stronger in the third quarter with drives that netted him five free throws at crucial times. Defenders gave Dunn room, and he made his open threes and was the point guard finisher.
Hoiberg seems to have a reasonable plan worked out starting Grant to keep him encouraged while playing Dunn late and more. Grant played 22 minutes and Dunn 24, though deep reserves closed out the commanding win.
But more crucial was the overall defensive play with long armed Dunn often combining with Nwaba and Holiday. And Markkanen was effective staying close to fellow former Arizona Wildcat Aaron Gordon. Valentine also came on in the second half with his most stable game of the season, shooting and moving the ball well.
“The big thing David brings is such an intensity,” said Hoiberg. “He’s going to get out on the break. When he rebounds, just tell everybody to get out of the way; he’s coming. We don’t run with him. We need to because if you get to the corners he does a good job. His hardnosed, tough mentality has brought a big difference to us defensively the last couple of games.”
Orlando grabbed a 45-44 halftime lead when the Bulls slowed up some in the second quarter. Dunn had a pair of turnovers, but they were more off aggression with offensive fouls. Those aren’t that bad. Markkanen stopped a long Bulls scoring drought with a three and Nwaba had another of those rebound and 90-foot drives.
The Bulls then owned the second half.
It was a good, unselfish effort. You talk a lot in this business about team wins; this was a true team win.
Nwaba with a steal and score and Holiday with a three got it going. And this time the Bulls didn’t let up. Markkanen had a pair of nifty interior passes for scores to Lopez and Nwaba. Holiday, who had been staying outside, scored on another driving floater and Lopez finished an impressive followup dunk running at his full speed. The Bulls led 73-60 after three quarters.
Nwaba added a pair of driving scores early in the fourth and then Valentine and Dunn made threes to effectively close out the Magic with a 21-point Bulls lead—say that out loud–halfway through the fourth quarter.
“The Bulls’ record isn’t good, but I think they’re just a young team that plays good basketball,” said Magic center Nikola Vucevic. “They played the right way, they ran some good plays defensively, and they had a body on guys. [They’re] inexperienced guys like we were in the last couple of years and it’s hard to win games that way, but they play good basketball.”