By John Denton
April 10, 2017
CHICAGO – Monday night should have been a memorable moment for Nikola Vucevic what with him eclipsing a mark set by Shaquille O’Neal and moving up the all-time rebounding rankings in Orlando Magic history.
Instead, the night went like so many other forgettable ones in Vucevic’s stat-filled, success-starved five-year run with the Magic.
The 7-foot center grabbed 10 boards to pass O’Neal and move up to second all-time in Magic history in rebounds. But the moment proved to be the lone bright spot on a miserable night in a season full of them for the Magic, who were 122-75 losers to the Chicago Bulls at the United Center.
Orlando’s 47-point defeat proved to be the worst loss in franchise history. It eclipsed the previous franchise high for margin of defeat at 43 points, which was set on Nov. 16, 2002 in a 135-92 loss to the Golden State Warriors.
“It was very bad tonight. We just didn’t bring it on either end of the floor,’’ Vucevic admitted dejectedly. “We didn’t compete. They took it to us in the first quarter. We made some bad decisions offensively to start the game, which led to them getting some easy points. After that, we just gave in.’’
One moment in Monday’s third quarter summed up the crippling frustration that Vucevic – the longest-tenured player on the Magic – has been struck with late in this season – one he thought would end in a playoff berth when the team opened training camp back in September. After Robin Lopez spun for a left-handed layup, Vucevic grabbed the ball out of the net and banged it against his forehead three times in succession.
The moment was a microcosm of the night for Orlando (28-53), which trailed by 20 points 10 minutes into the game and by 30 points midway through the second quarter.
As recently as two weeks ago, the Magic were still fully engaged in the season and competing at a high level, pushing playoff teams such as Oklahoma City and Boston to the brink. But Monday’s loss – the sixth in the past seven games – gave the appearance that Orlando’s roster is peeking ahead to Wednesday’s season finale.
“No words for that. We all know that we weren’t good enough,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “We played really well (two weeks ago), but for whatever reason we lost steam this week. We played really well during that stretch (against Oklahoma City and Boston).’’
Two nights after allowing Indiana to score 127 points and shoot 59.3 percent from the floor, Orlando’s defense was shredded for 122 points and 53.9 percent shooting by the Bulls. Chicago had a 56-26 advantage in paint points and 36-15 scoring edge from the 3-point line – shocking numbers against a Magic squad with a host of players who are thought of as plus defenders.
“We’re not good enough on that end,’’ Vogel said of the defense. “I share responsibility. I haven’t gotten the most out of these guys. I haven’t gotten enough out of these guys on the defensive end.’’
Vucevic, who also had 14 points in 26 minutes, now has 3,697 rebounds in his Magic career over 347 games (10.7 rpg.). O’Neal snagged 3,691 rebounds with the Magic from 1992-96. Dwight Howard is the franchise’s all-time leader with 8,072 boards from 2004-12.
Vucevic said that while accomplishing the rebounding mark was special for a legacy that he’s worked hard to build, he’d trade all those boards in for a taste of team success. That success has eluded him all throughout his time in Orlando, and it’s drained some of the joy out of what he’s accomplished on a personal level.
“It’s a way that I’ll be remembered,’’ Vucevic said of his rise through the record books as a rebounder. “You can build your legacy by staying with one franchise and setting records that will last for a long time.
“That (rebounding mark) is special for me, but more importantly would be getting to the playoffs and building even more of a legacy that way,’’ Vucevic added. “That’s my No. 1 priority and I haven’t given up hope of that happening. My rebounding is a big achievement for myself, but hopefully there will be more team success in the future.’’
Chicago (40-41) needed to win on Monday and it showed in how they played with an edge on both ends of the floor. Lopez (18 points), Jimmy Butler (17 points), Nikola Mirotic (16 points and three 3-pointers) and Jerian Grant (17 points and a career-best 11 assists) scored at will.
Dwyane Wade (13 points and six rebounds) had to enjoy the night the most since his current team (Chicago) moved one step closer to eliminating his former team (Miami) from playoff contention. If Chicago beats Brooklyn in Wednesday’s season finale it will reach the postseason over Miami because of its ownership of the tiebreaker.
“We basically played against two teams that desperately needed to win and we just didn’t respond with the right focus and the right energy,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, referring to the past two games against seventh-seeded Indiana and eighth-seeded Chicago. “They played for their lives and we didn’t, basically.’’
Fournier scored 14 points, while Magic point guard Elfrid Payton chipped in 11 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Aaron Gordon, who played through a slight shoulder injury suffered in Saturday’s loss to Indiana, added 10 points and six rebounds.
Two nights after scoring 29 points and hitting six 3-point shots against the Pacers, Orlando’s Terrence Ross made just one of five shots and missed both of his tries from beyond the arc. He finished with three points in 17 minutes.
The regular season will mercifully close on Wednesday when the Magic host the equally disconsolate Detroit Pistons at the Amway Center. Both the Magic and Pistons expected to be in the playoffs this season following busy offseasons of building around their young cores, however both teams suffered through miserable seasons because of defensive woes and chemistry issues.
Tipoff on Wednesday is 8 p.m. – an hour later than usual. Gates to the Amway Center for “Fan Appreciation Night’’ will open at 6:30 p.m.
“It’d be nice to get a win to finish it off, especially for our fans because they’ve been through a lot and have suffered a lot these past few years,’’ Vucevic said. “So it’d be nice for them if we could get a win. It wouldn’t change much, but it’s always better to finish off with a win instead of a loss.’’
Down 64-37 at the half, Orlando showed a few bursts of life in the third quarter, but it couldn’t ever slow down the hard-charging Bulls. Chicago pushed the lead to as much as 33 points in the third and it had a whopping 38-point bulge in the fourth.
The first half was a complete white-washing as the Bulls stormed to a 20-point lead in the first 10 minutes, had a 30-point advantage in the second quarter and led 64-37 at halftime.
While the Bulls were in must-win mode and playing with great urgency, the Magic seemed to be guarding and running their offensive sets with half-hearted intensity. Clearly, the team was already looking to Wednesday’s game and the merciful finish to this forgettable season.
“After the first quarter, we saw it coming,’’ Fournier fumed. “It felt like it was already too late. They hit us hard in the first quarter and they were on cruise control the rest of the game. We could never match their intensity and their defense. It was just a bad game and it was embarrassing.’’
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