Game Recap: Bulls 99, Magic 93

The Orlando Magic entered last night’s game a surprising 2-0.

Possibly even more surprising was their post-Dwight Howard offensive uptick. In those two wins, the Magic scored 102 points against the Denver Nuggets and then 115 points against the Phoenix Suns.

The Bulls — who also had enjoyed a quick 2-0 start — were coming off a disappointing home loss to the New Orleans Hornets in which they were outworked and outplayed amid an offensive meltdown.

The bad news was two-fold for the Magic.

First: The Bulls currently lead the league in Defensive Rating — giving up only 95.3 points per 100 possessions — and had held their previous nine opponents below 90 points.

In other words, the Magic — who were missing Al Harrington, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson — were highly unlikely to enjoy the same kind of offensive success they had against the Nuggets (currently 21st in Defensive Rating) and Suns (23rd in Defensive Rating).

Second: Under head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls rarely lose two games in a row. It happened only four times during Thibodeau’s first season and only once last season. What’s more, the Bulls haven’t lost two games in the United Center since dropping five in a row (during a larger 10-game skid) in March of 2012. Back when, you know, Vinny Del Negro was coaching the team.

That trend continued last night as the Bulls put forth a much better offensive effort, scoring 99 points on 47.7 percent shooting and finishing with an Offensive Rating of 105.3.

That said, it wasn’t an overpowering win, nor a particularly pretty one.

The Bulls looked absolutely helpless against Arron Afflalo (game-high 28 points, 10-for-17, 5 rebounds, 5 assists) and trailed by as many as 7 points in the third quarter. Then — with Thibs employing an unusual lineup of Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson — Chicago outscored the Magic 31-23 in the final 12 minutes to secure the comeback victory.

Said Deng: “This was a tough game. They’re playing well, and we lost our last game. It’s one of those we needed to win. You don’t want to lose two, then we’ve got Oklahoma (City) coming in. The fourth quarter was really good for the team.”

Deng certainly did his part, scoring 15 of his team-best 23 points in the second half — on 9-for-16 shooting — to go with 8 rebounds and 4 assists. And 8 of those points came in the fourth, off three mid-range jumpers and a couple free throws.

Noah did his part, too, racking up 20 points (7-for-13), 9 rebounds, 5 blocked shots and 4 assists. His 7 fourth-quarter points included two jumpers from about 20 feet out that were followed by some pretty enthusiastic finger pistols. He also fed Gibson for a dunk-and-foul with 39 seconds left. Taj completed the three-point play to put the Bulls up 96-89, which essentially put the game away.

The only two blights on Noah’s performance were 1) a missed free throw with 23 seconds to go and 2) a rushed (and needless) three-pointer with three seconds left. The first blight kept the Bulls stuck on 99 points — a mere one point away from earning the UC crowd free Big Macs — and the second blight was a rather misguided attempt to make up for the first.

Said Noah: “I got caught up in the moment. I regret it a little bit. It wasn’t a good shot. You have to respect the game because you never know what can happen in a game, I just got caught up in the moment and I was trying to get the people a Big Mac. They really wanted a Big Mac and I felt like, not only did I take the shot and miss the shot, we didn’t even get the Big Mac. Next time I won’t take that 3-pointer.”

Noah isn’t kidding. The crowd spent the last minute of the game concerned much more with the prospect of free food than Chicago’s 3-1 start. They groaned when Noah missed that free throw. They groaned even more loudly when Kirk Hinrich bricked two freebies 13 seconds later. And there was a collective “Awww!” when Noah’s ill-advised triple went astray.

Oh well. As Walt Disney used to say, always leave them wanting more.

Back to the game…this may have been the best performance of the new bench so far. The reserves contributed 29 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots. And, as noted, Butler (4 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal), Gibson (12 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks) and Robinson (11 points, 5-for-8, 6 assists) were instrumental in Chicago’s fourth quarter comeback.

Those contributions were needed because Carlos Boozer (6-for-18) was struggling to locate his shot and Kirk Hinrich was solid (8 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists) but not providing the necessary spark.

Still too, it helped that the Magic were minus three projected starters, and that Glen Davis was so darn shot-happy. Last night, he led the Magic in field goal attempts (22) and missed field goal attempts (15)…and that included several air balls. Big Baby was averaging better than 25 points in Orlando’s first two games, but that doesn’t mean he should force up jumpers over taller opponents. But that’s what he did again and again.

Which played into the Chicago’s defensive plan.

Davis was also a big part in what may have been the game’s defining moment. With his team trailing only 93-89 and nearly a minute left in the game, Davis forced up a 26-footer that never had a chance of going in. It was, to be very generous, a questionable decision. In 341 career games, Davis has attempted a total of 39 three-pointers and converted only six of them, a “success” rate of 15.4 percent. What he was doing chucking a three in that circumstance is anyone’s guess.

The Bulls responded to Baby’s brain spasm with that play in which Noah fed Gibson for the dunk and contact. That two-way sequence turned a winnable game into a loss for the Magic.

So Bulls fans might consider sending Davis a thank you card.

On the other hand, The Bulls had their struggles with Afflalo, not to mention E’Twaun Moore (17 points, 7-for-13, 3-for-4 on threes) and Nikola Vucevic (16 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks).

The Bulls also lost track of Orlando’s three-point shooters, which helped the Magic go 8-for-19 from downtown (42 percent). By contract, Chicago attempted a mere six three-pointers, converting on only two of them.

I know it’s early, but the Bulls have attempted only 42 threes, which ranks 27th in the league. Worse, they’re shooting a dismal 26.2 percent from beyond the arc, which is 29th in the league. It’s always dangerous to draw too many conclusions from a four-game sample, but I can’t see these numbers changing much. The Bulls — without Derrick Rose and especially after the departure of Kyle Korver — aren’t going to get many threes this season.

But that’s a worry for another day.

Key Stat Part 1:
In their first two games, the Magic averaged 14 fast break points. Last night, they scored only 9.

Key Stat Part 2:
According to Hoopdata, the Bulls shot 18-for-36 (50 percent) from 16-23 feet. The “long two” is the worst shot in the game…but the Bulls were converting it last night.

Quote of the Night Part 1:
Robinson: “I think we wanted it more. I think at the end, we were more gritty. Coach said whatever it takes to get the win. So tonight, we had to gut it out.”

Quote of the Night Part 2:
Noah: “(Winning is) all that counts, but we need to play better. This isn’t going to cut it against a better team. We’ve just got to keep fighting.

Recap, Box Score, Advanced Box Score, Play-by-Play, Shot Chart.

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