Things were going to be different this time. You could tell almost immediately that this team was determined to create a different result. Yes, the opponent was a much tougher one this time. But the Magic could not fold this time and give away a win.
They nearly did. But this time, the Magic found the focus defensively and the energy to close things out… even if it took some fortune to get there.
The Magic saw an 18-point first-quarter lead nearly evaporate in the second quarter and had to fight off a determined, but perhaps tired, Bulls team throughout the night. It was the Magic — specifically Dwight Howard — making the plays to secure the win.
Jameer Nelson ran a pick and roll with Howard and lobbed the ball high where only Howard could get it. He slammed it down with an exclamation point. After a stop, the Magic extended the lead to five points on a Ryan Anderson 3-pointer. Up by only four on the next possession, a poor 3-point shoot was rebounded by Dwight Howard and whipped around until J.J. Redick had it long enough to foul.
Orlando had survived, erasing some of the memories of a loss to Charlotte (some), and taking home a 99-94 win at the United Center over Chicago on Thursday.
This game was not without its lucky moments. Kyle Korver missed three or four wide open 3-pointers in the closing moments. That included a wide open shot from the corner that resulted off Jameer Nelson and Jason Richardson bumping knees and falling to the floor. Nelson returned, Richardson did not.
A big takeaway though was how in control Orlando was in this game throughout the contest. The Magic took control early by scoring the first eight points of the game and taking that 18-point lead. They shot much better than 50 percent and scored 37 points, the most the Bulls had given up in a quarter this season.
The ball was moving brilliantly inside-out, as the team established Dwight Howard in the post early and then made 3-pointers at a strong pace. Everyone knew the pace would not last, but it showed the potential the Magic can have on both the offensive and defensive end.
Howard was dominant throughout the game, scoring 29 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, seven on the offensive end. He was an absolute monster in the post, having his way with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah for the most part.
And it was the kind of energy you expected early after Stan Van Gundy more or less called his team out after the loss to Charlotte. They responded and played great.
Of course, the test was what happened when Dwight Howard went out of the game and the game settled down. What happened was hwat you would expect.
The offense bogged down immensely. The ball movement which was so crisp stopped and the team slowed down. It was no wonder that the momentum slowed and the Bulls came back. Kyle Korver did make his shots in the second quarter, scoring seven consecutive points with J.J. Redick trying to chase him around, as Chicago stormed back. With Derrick Rose making a long, running 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer, the Bulls were within five.
From there, asking Orlando to grind out against one of the top defensive teams in the league and one of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. The Magic did it though. They grinded and fought.
They extended their lead out to eight points in the fourth quarter and survived multiple stretches of that maddeningly inconsistent and passive offense that the Magic seem to fall into. After that hot-shooting first quarter, Orlando ended up shooting 42.1 percent from the floor for the game. The team turned it over 15 times and hit on 11 of 26 3-pointers. It was everything the Magic are.
Sometimes dangerous, always frustrating.
The only difference this time was that the energy was there throughout the night (except for maybe a stretch in that second quarter). Orlando did not look completely lifeless as it has in previous games this month.
In the end, the Magic just did what they needed to do.
So, in this tough stretch of games leading into the trade deadline, the question is whether the Magic will match the energy and precision in the next game — Sunday against the Pacers. That is certainly the next question as Orlando tries to prove to itself that it can play with the East’s elite.