By John Denton
Nov. 3, 2017
ORLANDO – Reaching heights they haven’t even gotten near in years, the hot-shooting, high-scoring Orlando Magic returned to the Amway Center on Friday eager to show off their progress to an adoring sellout crowd.
Instead, the Magic’s improvement was all but a rumor on this night as they struggled offensively and defensively. Ultimately, the feel-good vibes bubbling out of a strong start to the season were replaced by the frustration of losing to the one-win Chicago Bulls.
As shocking as the Magic’s stellar play was in the first eight games of the season, their precipitous plunge on Friday was equally surprising. An Orlando team that entered the night tied for the best record in the NBA seemed to lose its way offensively and couldn’t string together nearly enough defensive stops in a humbling 105-83 loss to the rebuilding Bulls.
“I think this game can still show us that we have a lot of work to do and that we haven’t accomplished anything,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, the team’s longest-tenured player who has suffered through five non-playoff seasons in Orlando. “We can’t underestimate (a team like the Bulls) and you can’t say this was a terrible loss because they were 1-5. We just really didn’t show up to play hard enough and it showed. We couldn’t get anything going on either end.’’
Orlando’s lack of zest in attacking the rim and fighting against the more physical Bulls (2-5) could be summed up in one particularly telling statistic. The Magic tied all-time franchise lows for free throw makes (three) and attempts (five) in the game. Just 10 days earlier in a defeat of Brooklyn, Orlando made 35 free throws and got to the line 40 times – both categories still standing as highs in the NBA this season.
On Friday, however, that same pluck was missing.
“Our normal energy, our normal ball movement that we normally have, it just seemed like we were a little tired and we can’t afford to be like that,’’ said rookie forward Jonathan Isaac, whose Magic were playing their first game back in Orlando following a five-day, three-game road trip. “We’ve been so accustomed to raining (in) threes at the start of the season. We had a game (on Friday) where our shots weren’t falling and we’ve got to keep it up on the (defensive) end. I think we let that (fight) go.’’
Winners of five of their previous six games, the Magic (6-3) looked like the team that struggled most of the past five seasons instead of the one atop the NBA in most major statistical categories before Friday. Maybe, just maybe, Orlando was due for a dud and it came in an unsightly manner before a crowd of 19,171 at the Amway Center.
The fact that the Magic tripped up against the young Bulls made the happenings even more shocking. Orlando shot just 40.7 percent from the floor and made only 10 of 35 3-point shots. The Magic haven’t seen much of those kinds of numbers all season as they entered the game first in the NBA in 3-point percentage, second in field goal percentage and second in scoring.
“Winning is not easy in this league and every night you’ve got somebody (as an opponent) that is hungry regardless of their record or pedigree and you’ve got to play well to get a `W’,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “You get behind and you start to press and that’s what we did when things weren’t going our way in the second half.’’
Orlando, owners of lopsided wins against Cleveland and San Antonio already this season, missed out on a chance to go 7-2 for the first time since 2007-08 and failed in its bid to be 4-0 at the Amway Center for the first time in six seasons. The Magic came into the night at 6-2 – tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference and a first for the franchise since the 59-win season of 2009-10. But the fall from grace wasn’t pretty on a bizarre Friday when Chicago was the superior team in several facets.
“We were just kind of forcing things and guys were trying to do things on their own and lead the team by making big, one-on-one plays,’’ said Vucevic, referring to Orlando’s 23 assists compared to 16 turnovers. “I don’t think it came out of being selfish. We just didn’t get anything going and we went away from what works for us. Stuff like that happens, but when it does we have to understand that we have to keep playing our way.’’
Evan Fournier scored 21 points and extended his streak with a 3-pointer to 34 games – the third-longest such active streak in the NBA. However, the Magic had little else working as Vucevic (14 points) and Aaron Gordon (11 points) were the only other Orlando players to reach double figures in scoring.
One play involving Gordon midway through the third quarter proved to be a frustrating microcosm of the night. Gordon, Orlando’s second-leading scorer on the season (20.7 points per game) and arguably one of the league’s most improved players, drove baseline only to be cut off by Chicago rookie Lauri Markkanen. Following a fake, Gordon attempted going baseline again – rather than passing the ball back out to a teammate – before falling out of bounds for a turnover. The moment seemed to deflate the Magic and a subsequent 19-4 Chicago run buried Orlando in an 80-60 hole.
“We had a tough-shooting half both from the 3-point line and at the basket and missed some layups, but you have to play through that stuff and stay true to who you are,’’ Vogel vented. “I thought when we got behind or we weren’t making shots we kind of fell into some bad habits and that’s part of the reason for the offensive woes.’’
Chicago, which came into the game ranked 30th in the NBA in scoring and field goal percentage and 28th in 3-point accuracy, made 47.1 percent of its shots and connected on 14 of 29 threes. Justin Holiday scored 19 points, while David Nwaba added 16 points and Marrkanen – who is already a leading candidate for the NBA Rookie of the Year award – had 13 points and three 3-pointers.
Vogel worried before the game that his team might start to grow content following the early success. Vogel has repeatedly reminded his team that the season still has lots of highs and lows to come and the challenges will only get more difficult as the Magic stack up victories.
“We’ve come a long way, but I just want to guard against acting like we’ve arrived,’’ Vogel said about 100 minutes prior to tipoff. “We’re not a team that is going to win at this winning percentage all year – hopefully we are – but we weren’t as bad as we looked (last season in a lopsided loss to the Bulls). … We’ve certainly come a long way from where we were last year, there’s no doubt about that.’’
Orlando was playing without its top two point guards and had to rely heavily on the play of free-agent acquisitions Shelvin Mack and Jonathon Simmons to shoulder most of the ball-handling duties. Elfrid Payton (strained left hamstring) missed his seventh consecutive game, but is expected to return to practice on Saturday and could play Sunday when the Magic host the Boston Celtics. D.J. Augustin, the starter at point guard the past two weeks, was also out with a strained left hamstring – an injury he suffered in Wednesday’s win in Memphis.
Mack finished with two points, eight assists and five rebounds in 25 minutes. Simmons, a standout all season with his aggressive attacking of the rim and stellar defense, had just six points and three assists in 25 minutes.
Said Vogel of being without two of the team’s top playmakers: “Yeah, it’s a factor. It hurts your rhythm a little bit … but it’s not an excuse. We had our starting point guard (Payton) out the whole season and we played really well and with a good rhythm offensively. We just have to make sure we come back and find that on Sunday.’’
Up a point at intermission despite some of their choppiest play of the season, Orlando completely came unglued on both ends of the floor in the third quarter. Their poor shooting (five of 19 in the third quarter) and even shakier defense (29 points for the Bulls) left Orlando trailing 73-60 by the start of the fourth period.
Looking for any kind of spark, Vogel turned to a lineup of Arron Afflalo, Wes Iwundu, Marreese Speights Mack and Isaac to start the fourth quarter. Like with many of the previous lineups, that grouping had little success and Orlando found itself behind 80-60 with 9:39 to play.
The start of the game portended what was to come on the night for the Magic – something certainly shocking to an Amway Center crowd seeing the Magic for the first time in a week. Fresh off a 2-1 road trip that ended with victories against New Orleans and Memphis, Orlando missed seven of its first nine shots and shockingly trailed 15-4 just four minutes into the game. Orlando seemed to have found something by making 15 of its next 21 shot attempts to grab a 37-35. But it wouldn’t last, leading to a rare night of misery in a season that had gone so well up to this point.
“We’re a team that’s got a lot of depth and when we play together we’re capable of beating any team in the league. But we’re just as vulnerable to losing to teams that we quote-unquote should beat,’’ said Magic veteran guard Arron Afflalo, who had two points and a rebound in 18 minutes off the bench. “It’s just a matter of execution and effort. We’ve just got to give it to the Bulls tonight because they came to play.’’
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