Orlando Magic Grades: Chicago Bulls 105, Orlando Magic 83

It is hard to win without your starting point guard. It only gets harder when his backup is hurt too. The Magic offense struggled to 83 points in this loss.

It is hard to win when a team’s starting point guard is out. It only gets harder when his backup is hurt too. The Orlando Magic found themselves down two key players against the Chicago Bulls at the Amway Center on Friday, and the impact of these absences was clear.

The Magic showed flashes in the first half. There was a beautiful dime from Jonathon Simmons to Jonathan Isaac after Simmons split the Bulls’ aggressive pick-and-roll defense. There was a Mario Hezonja cross-court pass to Jonathan Isaac, who drove to the basket and scored on a nifty finish.

They made some nice plays as the Magic attempted to run point guard by committee. But with no true point guard on the bench, the offense was stale and sloppy more than it was anything else.

The Magic had a one-point lead at the half. Somehow it felt like even less against a Bulls team expected to be the worst in the league. This Orlando
team has dismantled opponents far more daunting than Robin Lopez and company. As the second quarter wound down, the offense was not clicking and the defense was lapsing.

The lack of professional playmakers made it difficult for everyone to get consistent good looks, which seemed to gradually erode at the team’s psyche. They began to pass up open men in favor of difficult, contested shots in the midrange.

It all added up to a disappointing 105-83 loss at the Amway Center. A humbling defeat to the Bulls that exposed a lot of flaws and uncertainty.

In the second half, Jonathon Simmons started to look uncomfortable as the Magic’s de facto lead ball-handler, sometimes seeming unsure whether to shoot or pass.

Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon had moments, continuing their excellent starts. Evan Fournier hung another 20-point game while Aaron Gordon knocked down threes – going 3 for 5 from behind the line – like he has all season. Nikola Vucevic had several defensive lapses but shot well off flare screens (sinking two threes) and contributing some playmaking (finishing with two assists).

It was an ugly loss. But it is difficult to expect credible offensive play with nothing but a third-string point guard running things. There were some solid individual performances but this team sorely misses both Elfrid Payton and D.J. Augustin.

Orlando will not use that as an excuse. They have to find a way to hold onto the rope and stay in games even when they shoot as poorly as they did Friday — 40.7 percent and 28.6 percent from beyond the arc. Until then, the Magic might see more defeats like this one. Even to teams like the Bulls.

JONATHON SIMMONS

G, Orlando Magic

C+

When you are forced to play someone who is not a point guard at point guard for extended minutes, bad things will happen.

Jonathon Simmons did not have a good game, but it is hard to be overly critical. Running point is not his job. His new responsibilities seemed to gradually take him out of his usual attacking mindset, especially after committing a few ugly turnovers.

There are still positives to take away, though. In the first half, it was obvious why Simmons was the chosen fourth-string point guard. He did an excellent job running pick and rolls and tossed a few dimes in the halfcourt and transition. Simmons is great as a secondary ball-handler or as a change-of-pace guy on bench units.

He brought great defensive energy as expected, ready to hound whoever he was matched up against. Friday night it was the sophomore Kris Dunn. Dunn seemed to rise to the occasion, attacking the basket and forcing Simmons into some tough spots, and Simmons tapered off in the second half. But overall he was one of the Magic’s few defensive strong points.

Hopefully, the Magic will not need to ask this of him very often, because they need him to be his usual hyper-aggressive self. He is a scorer first and a playmaker second. He finished the night with six points and three assists on just 3-for-6 shooting.

Nikola Vucevic’s five did not help the issue. Neither did his problematic defense.

Vucevic’s willingness to pop and shoot threes has not gone away though, which bodes well for the team’s offense. Robin Lopez was clearly respecting his outside shot. That alone helped the Magic in the first half. His passing also led to some easy points.

In this game, the offense sputtered first, but it was when the defense slipped the Bulls pulled away. The Magic have been sharp rotating defensively. Everyone on this team has been quick and engaged almost every game making it near impossible for other teams to get shots off. But team defense is a precarious thing sometimes, and the Bulls made the Magic pay when Vucevic lapsed.

As the offense struggled, the defense followed suit. The team just lost focus as the deficit grew. It can’t be pinned solely on Vucevic, but one faulty cog can make everyone’s lives a little more difficult.

He was a -11, scored 14 points and registered three rebounds. On the glass, he mostly batted balls out to his teammates and concentrated on boxing out the tenacious Lopez, which would normally pay dividends as his beneficiaries get out on the break and push the ball up. But Friday night the Bulls seemed prepared to deny those opportunities.

Vucevic can continue having a positive impact by taking threes, stretching the floor, and staying focused on defense. When he forces passes and shots, things start falling apart.

" >

NIKOLA VUCEVIC

C, Orlando Magic

C

Turnovers plagued the Magic Friday night and Nikola Vucevic’s five did not help the issue. Neither did his problematic defense.

Vucevic’s willingness to pop and shoot threes has not gone away though, which bodes well for the team’s offense. Robin Lopez was clearly respecting his outside shot. That alone helped the Magic in the first half. His passing also led to some easy points.

In this game, the offense sputtered first, but it was when the defense slipped the Bulls pulled away. The Magic have been sharp rotating defensively. Everyone on this team has been quick and engaged almost every game making it near impossible for other teams to get shots off. But team defense is a precarious thing sometimes, and the Bulls made the Magic pay when Vucevic lapsed.

As the offense struggled, the defense followed suit. The team just lost focus as the deficit grew. It can’t be pinned solely on Vucevic, but one faulty cog can make everyone’s lives a little more difficult.

He was a -11, scored 14 points and registered three rebounds. On the glass, he mostly batted balls out to his teammates and concentrated on boxing out the tenacious Lopez, which would normally pay dividends as his beneficiaries get out on the break and push the ball up. But Friday night the Bulls seemed prepared to deny those opportunities.

Vucevic can continue having a positive impact by taking threes, stretching the floor, and staying focused on defense. When he forces passes and shots, things start falling apart.

AARON GORDON

PF, Orlando Magic

B-

Aaron Gordon did not put up his most gaudy stat line of the year — 11 points, seven rebounds and 4-for-10 shooting. But he still looks much improved on offense. The volume was not there but there were not many negatives to take away from this game for him.

When the offense stopped clicking, almost everyone on the Magic forced midrange shots late in the shot clock. Gordon was no exception. But his 3-point percentage is still hovering around 60 percent after a 3-for-5 night.

He was a major beneficiary of Nikola Vucevic’s work boxing out Robin Lopez, corralling six defensive rebounds and leading the break. Some of those were batted toward him by the big man. But he either was cautious in transition or ran into tough defense, so those fastbreaks were rarely converted into anything of substance.

The most important thing for Gordon is that he has remained confident in his shot. He is still not hesitating to pull the trigger, even off the dribble, and it is paying off.

It feels more and more like the range is here to stay, which was the only serious limit to his offensive game.

MARIO HEZONJA

SF, Orlando Magic

B+

Mario Hezonja did not play very much – only nine minutes – but it was one of his better games of the year so far.

Granted, that is a low bar. In nine games, he has received more than seven minutes only five times. But Friday night he did a bit of everything in scoring eight points off the bench. He hit a couple of threes, looked solid on his feet defensively, earned two assists with some good passing and was the team’s only net positive in the box score (he finished as a plus three).

These are the kinds of minutes Hezonja will need to give on a consistent basis. He likely will not play more than 10 or 15 very often, so in that time he will need to make good decisions offensively and stay in front of his man defensively. Against the Chicago Bulls, he was active on both ends and did not force things too much, in contrast to many of his teammates.

Orlando has been hot shooting the ball but as the team’s percentages start falling, Hezonja is one of the few players who could remain a legitimate spot-up threat. He will not be a high-volume three-point shooter but if he can force defenses to respect his shot, he can have a positive impact, especially if he is not too much of a defensive liability.

The Magic defense was not ready for the Bulls. Or at least it was not ready for the shooting strokes of Denzel Valentine, Kris Dunn, Justin Holiday and Lauri Markkanen, all of whom were all too happy to cash in on the opportunities allowed by a porous Magic effort.

In fact, just about everyone on this Chicago team gave the Magic problems. David Nwaba approached his career-high in scoring, finishing with 16 points, and Robin Lopez hung a double-double. Paul Zipser offered 10 points of his own. Zipser got six of those from outside, but he also got to the basket effortlessly on a few drives.

Orlando’s defense was stingy enough in the first half. But the Bulls were patient enough and easily found lapses throughout the second half.

While it is tempting to throw this game away because of the point guard situation, it is still worrisome how easily the Bulls seemed to poke holes in the defense. The Magic disengaged as the offense stagnated.

" >

CHICAGO BULLS

2-5, 14th East

A-

The Chicago Bulls defense was ready for the Orlando Magic. They made their lives incredibly difficult, forcing baseline drives and denying middle penetration in the halfcourt. They also got back quickly in transition, starving Orlando of its bread-and-butter.

The Magic defense was not ready for the Bulls. Or at least it was not ready for the shooting strokes of Denzel Valentine, Kris Dunn, Justin Holiday and Lauri Markkanen, all of whom were all too happy to cash in on the opportunities allowed by a porous Magic effort.

In fact, just about everyone on this Chicago team gave the Magic problems. David Nwaba approached his career-high in scoring, finishing with 16 points, and Robin Lopez hung a double-double. Paul Zipser offered 10 points of his own. Zipser got six of those from outside, but he also got to the basket effortlessly on a few drives.

Orlando’s defense was stingy enough in the first half. But the Bulls were patient enough and easily found lapses throughout the second half.

While it is tempting to throw this game away because of the point guard situation, it is still worrisome how easily the Bulls seemed to poke holes in the defense. The Magic disengaged as the offense stagnated.