The tension was clear as the Orlando Magic watched their 23-point lead dwindle all the way down to six. The Chicago Bulls got cooking as Zach LaVine, as he did in an earlier game between the two teams in February, went on a fourth-quarter binge to pull the Bulls back into the game.
For a young team without a ton of winning experience together, this was the kind of moment that would make anyone nervous. Everyone could sense history repeating itself as the Orlando Magic lost their lead against the Denver Nuggets a few weeks ago. A six-game losing streak puts everyone on edge.
This is the exact position Steve Clifford wants his young team in. Will they learn and grow from their previous mistakes or make them all over again? It is in this pressure he learns about his team.
The Orlando Magic survive a fourth-quarter threat to their lead, snapping a six-game losing streak and exacting some revenge over the traded Nikola Vucevic.
He might have turned back to veteran players to finish the job, but he still surely liked the energy. And with the Bulls knocking on the door, his team needed a response.
There would be no going back this time. This was a game the Magic very clearly wanted.
On a key fourth-quarter possession, the Magic trapped Zach LaVine in the corner. As he sought the safety valve that is Nikola Vucevic on the perimeter, Michael Carter-Williams shot the gap and stole the pass for an easy dunk.
Considering that only a few minutes beforehand he had seemingly horrifically rolled his ankle, it was a gutsy finish to a gutsy performance for the Magic. They got the early confidence of some hot shooting and played with the energy and focus that had been lacking for much of the four-game homestand.
The Magic, playing against Vucevic for the first time since the trade, scored a 115-106 win over the Bulls at United Center.
It was a result that seemed to shock, to say the least. The Magic were lifeless for so long and then suddenly the team found its spark. Perhaps the matchup with Vucevic and a chance to show up a former team and star inspired the team to play better. Probably some pride after six straight losses — largely in blowouts — led the team to play with a bit more pride.
Orlando played with the energy and intensity it needed and came through with an impressive win.
WENDELL CARTERC, Orlando Magic
The biggest moment for Wendell Carter came in the middle of the third quarter just as the Orlando Magic were getting ready to make their run to take as much as a 22-point lead. Gary Harris missed a 3-pointer from the wing and Wendell Carter outworked everyone else on the floor missing a tip-in and collecting his own rebound before powering up for a two-handed jam. He gave the camera a mean mug at that point (probably unintentionally). There was a bit of anger in this game.
Carter finished the game with 19 points and 12 rebounds, making 8 of 16 shots and grabbing five offensive rebounds. He was physical and demanding to get to the basket. The Magic were at their best during the homestand when Carter was aggressive seeking his shot and playing with intensity as a screener. That was all in play.
There are still flaws in his game. He was putting in a focused effort on the glass. But he lost track of Nikola Vucevic a few times as he tried to trap. But even that was a sign of how the Magic can still change their defense. He is a good blitzer and hedger defensively and that could open things up more defensively for the team.
JAMES ENNISG/F, Orlando Magic
For the Orlando Magic to win games the rest of the year, the team is going to need someone unexpected to step up in a big way. Why did the Magic compete and win this game? It was the unexpected shooting burst from James Ennis. The Magic will not mind it. Ennis scored 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 5-for-6 from beyond the arc.
Ennis was smart with his shot selection, for the most part. And he was the guy the Bulls just constantly lost track of. Ennis has quietly had a really strong shooting season — 44.3-percent from beyond the arc. He is good at side-step threes and shooting off one dribble pull-ups. Ennis is not likely to have another game like this again. But he hit every big shot the magic needed to pace them and build their lead.
GARY HARRISSG, Orlando Magic
Gary Harris is still getting his legs under him. He is still seemingly a step slow. And everyone is still figuring out his game and how he plays. But it is clear what he can do. Even at this speed, Harris is still a plus-defender. He helped lock down Zach LaVine for much of the game and was active in passing lanes. It was tough to get by him.
The bigger question with Harris is whether he could get his legs back under him and regain his shooting touch. This was the first time he looked like he had it — scoring 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting 3-for-4 shooting from deep.
But more surprising was Harris’ six assists. He was great at dribbling through the lane, remaining a threat to score, but keeping his dribble alive to find open players as the defense tried to collapse around him. Harris might have to avoid aimless dribbling, but another player who can attack off the bounce is a must for this team.
MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMSG, Orlando Magic
Michael Carter-Williams has gotten the focus of every fan’s ire since the trade deadline. Someone has to play the scapegoat. Everyone knows that Carter-Williams can be a limited player and the Orlando Magic are relying on Carter-Williams far more than they should. So when he does something really good, it deserves mention. There is a reason Steve Clifford trusts Michael Carter-Williams, it is not unfounded.
Carter-Williams played with more energy and push this game than he did during the losing streak. He was driving not to score, but to try to kick out and move the ball. His pick and roll with Wendell Carter was setting up others around him. This is how the Magic need Carter-Williams to play. His 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting and eight rebounds were all a sign of his energy.
But his defense is why he is out there. With him out o the game in the fourth quarter, Zach LaVine went on a scoring binge to bring the Chicago Bulls back into the game. Clifford brought Carter-Williams back in and he locked up LaVine enough to give the Magic a gap to a win.
CHICAGO BULLS22-32, 10th East
The Chicago Bulls got a big game from Zach Lavine (30 points, 11-for-22 shooting, seven assists) and Nikola Vuceivc (29 points, 11 rebounds, 5-for-8 shooting from deep). They have two legitimate All-Stars and that should be more than enough to compete. Yet the Bulls seem like a complete mess. The supporting case is inconsistent and their defensive energy is almost non-existent (except for Daniel Theis).
Chicago was sloppy the entire game, with 12 turnovers. But the team’s defense just was not engaged. Orlando was the more physical team and pushed Chicago around all game. It was startling to see as the Magic moved the ball for the first time in a week. The Bulls have to be asking themselves a lot of questions after this game. Their stars showed up. Where was everyone else?
The Magic are now 18-37, 14th in the Eastern Conference. They trail the Bulls by 4.5 games for the final spot in the Play-In Tournament.
The team is any combination of one Milwaukee Bucks win or one loss away from being eliminated from getting the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The Magic are any combination of 14 losses or 14 Bulls wins away from being eliminated from contention for the Play-In Tournament. The Orlando Magic are any combination of 16 Detroit Pistons losses or 16 wins away from being eliminated from receiving the best odds to win the NBA Draft Lottery.
The Orlando Magic are back in action Friday in Tampa against the Toronto Raptors.