Bulls hold off Magic 128-109 to get back on track

The Bulls are still looking to thrive this season, but they have to survive first.

They finally did that Saturday when they avoided the darkness of another big relinquished lead and escaped into the sunshine of a 128-109 victory over the Orlando Magic.

Into the lion’s den of defeat and despair the Bulls were drawn when the Magic cut a 25-point Bulls lead to five with 4:28 left in the game on a Cole Anthony three. But then appropriately came Zach LaVine brandishing a saber of redemption for himself and the team, a critical driving score as time expired, a drive and kick that set up a Patrick Williams three, and then a score to close a 9-3 run that salvaged a win on this road trip.

Maybe it’s not quite Biblical, but maybe there is a miracle to spare somewhere for these Bulls.

“We were able to hold them off, which has been an issue for us all year long to play with big leads,” said Nikola Vučević, who had 26 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two blocks in a dominant game against his former team. “We let them get back into the game, but we were able to finish the game off. We stuck together better.”

It likely was cathartic, even if Vučević never would say so, for Vučević to have the commanding game against former Bull Wendell Carter Jr., who had just 11 points and five rebounds.

Nikola Vučević shoots a hook shot over Magic rookie Paolo Banchero.

There’s been second guessing about that trade with Vučević coming to free agency this summer. But Carter and the Magic starters were ineffective against the Bulls Big Three trio of Vučević, LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.

DeRozan and LaVine both had 32 points with DeRozan making a season most five three pointers, one short of his career best. He’d made just 17 all season and one in his last eight games.

It probably also was DeRozan’s last chance to make an impression for a sixth All-Star game. The coaches’ votes for the reserves are due in early next week with the Bulls next game at home Tuesday against the Los Angeles Clippers. With the Bulls under .500 now at 23-26, despite being the team’s leading scorer DeRozan’s candidacy for the All-Star appearance is shaky.

Not so shaky was the closing play of LaVine, who had a deliverance of his own and for the team.

It was LaVine who was benched at the end of what became that gruesome loss to Orlando in November when Vučević missed a pair of free throws and Jalen Suggs made a three to win the game. LaVine had missed 13 or 14 shots, but he reminded afterward he could make a big play even after a poor shooting game, or even make a clutch free throw.

There was no slump this time as the Bulls shot 59 percent overall and Vučević, LaVine and DeRozan were a combined 33 of 50 for 66 percent. Patrick Williams added to their efficient efforts with seven of 11 for 16 points, half in the fourth quarter.

But it was LaVine’s plays that saved the Bulls the ignominy of the road sweep at a time when their season was hovering over the abyss.

The Bulls essentially controlled the entire game, leading a sluggish Magic team 25-19 after the first quarter and 60-47 at halftime.

All three big Bulls were effective early, Vučević with 17 points in the first half in repeatedly going over and past the smaller Carter.

The taller Magic didn’t play Mo Bamba, who recently had a hip injury but who supposedly is being offered before the Feb. 9 trade deadline. The Magic figure to be sellers for more draft picks as they also didn’t play veteran scorer Terrence Ross. Onetime Bulls draft pick Gary Harris played briefly, and is also expected to be made available in trade.

Touted Magic rookie Paolo Banchero didn’t play the first time the teams met, and the Bulls made it this time like he didn’t. They closed off his driving lanes and he was three of 14 for nine points and zero for four on threes. The Magic made just 10 threes to 16 for the Bulls. And when the Bulls got ahead 89-64 on a pair of LaVine free throws with 3:27 left in the third quarter, the magic seemed ready to disappear.

Williams in one of his better efforts had just made a steal and went full court with a cross over move and slam dunk for a score, and to coach Billy Donovan’s urging the Bulls pace accelerated.

“When we play the right way, setting the screens and making the right reads in the flow of the game it leads to everyone getting the ball,” recalled Vučević. “For us, it has to come in the flow of the game. We can’t force things, and I think that’s what we did tonight, played with pace and the ball was moving.”

It was the Magic reserves that showed life with 27 points from Moritz Wagner and 21 from Anthony. But even with a 13-2 Orlando run to close the third quarter, the Bulls still held a 95-81 lead going into the fourth.

The Bulls, thanks to Vučević, managed to match the Magic on the boards as Donovan went with Derrick Jones Jr. as backup center. Jones did leave the game in the third quarter with what appeared to be a sprained ankle, but Donovan went back to Vučević. Andre Drummond didn’t play again and now had played a total of nine minutes combined in the last seven games. He might well be a prime attraction for another team at the trade deadline.

Williams stopped an early fourth quarter Magic run with a left handed score before a LaVine pullup three. And once Williams made a three off a DeRozan double team with eight minutes left, it seemed the Bulls might be safe with a 106-93 lead.

But the Magic kept attacking behind Anthony and Suggs right up to here-we-go-again time in what seemed like another second half eclipse, the Bulls season perhaps about to go dark.

This oscillating between ferocious and feckless play perhaps finally featuring failure.

Try saying that twice; Okay, please don’t.

“This was different,” said Donovan. “The reason I say it was different is I thought the intensity of the last couple games, especially Indiana, the intensity went way up and we never responded. I didn’t think that was the case tonight. Once we settled in and started to move the ball a little bit better, we started to generate better shots coming down the stretch.”

Except it was LaVine saving them when the only execution seemed like the answer from the old coach about his team’s execution. Yes, he said, I’m for it.

DeRozan fell down trying to make a play and recovered the ball. But the shot clock was winding to the end with Alex Carsuo on top with the ball and about five left. The Magic had cut the Bulls big lead to a tenuous five, and the Bulls were looking at another empty possession. And now the Magic’s chance to make it, as the broadcasters love say, a one possession game.

LaVine got the bailout pass with about four seconds on the shot clock, reminiscent of what the legendary Bulls assistant Johnny Bach used to call the Bulls Archangel offense: Save us, Michael.

Zach LaVine hits layup over former Bull Wendell Carter Jr.

LaVine did with a dart to the basket that really only he is capable of on this Bulls team.

His driving score gave the Bulls a 113-106 lead.

Suggs then was fouled, but missed both free throws. LaVine drove deep into the paint, drawing the defense for a kickout to the right corner to Caruso and then back on the wing for the Williams three.

Finally, breathing room at 116-106 with 3:29 left.

Moritz Wagner made a three, and then so did Suggs. But LaVine answered with a score on a slick Vučević pass, LaVine going up too quickly for the giant Bol Bol to react. That 120-109 Bulls lead with just over two minutes left pretty much ensured the Bulls weren’t going to be the prey this time. The Bulls closed the game on a 14-3 run.

“lt was a little different mindset at the end,” agreed Vučević. “We didn’t let it affect us when they made the run, and when they made it we stayed together and were able to respond.”

To come back again with hope.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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