Taking advantage of the absences of Dwight Howard and Quentin Richardson, the Chicago Bulls were able to defeat the Orlando Magic by the score of 102-99. The Magic, which were short-handed, played with energy and effort consistently throughout the day but it wasn’t enough against the Bulls. With Chicago leading by one point at 98-97, Orlando fouled Taj Gibson with 14.2 seconds left and put him on the free-throw line. Gibson split the free-throws, but Luol Deng was able to retrieve the offensive rebound after the second free-throw came up short. It was a bad bounce for the Magic and the Bulls were able to take advantage, as Derrick Rose made two free throws to extend the lead to four points. On the ensuing possession, Jason Richardson, after tripping on the original out-of-bounds play drawn up by head coach Stan Van Gundy, recovered and made a three-pointer with 2.7 seconds left to cut the deficit to one point. This was only after Ryan Anderson was able to feed Richardson with the basketball on a offensive rebound following a missed three-point shot by Jameer Nelson in the corner. Rose made two more free-throws to give Chicago a three-point lead. On the final possession of the game, Nelson got the ball at the top of the key, pump-faked Rose to get him in the air and create an open look, then put up a three-pointer which he made but it was too late. The Bulls escaped with the win. Three players led the way for Orlando. Anderson, playing in place of Howard, put up a career-high 28 points and 10 rebounds. Richardson finished with 24 points, while Nelson contributed with 17 points, 11 assists, five rebounds, and three steals.
Before breaking things down, it needs to be pointed out that if the Magic are able to advance past the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs, things could get interesting in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Although the Bulls have the best defense in the league, the Magic are more than capable of not only forcing the series to go the distance, but pull off the upset and win it if things shake out their way. Prognosticators may look at the result against Chicago and scoff that losing Howard may not be as big of a blow for Orlando as experts tout. But the critics are overlooking the fact that the Magic’s personnel, with or without Howard, is tailor-made to give the Bulls everything they can handle. The key for Orlando in this game was their ability to stretch Chicago’s defense to their limits and connect on 12 threes. That was in large part due to Nelson aggressively creating for his teammates through pick and rolls.
Richardson, in particular, feasted on staggered screens that the Magic set up for him around the perimeter, freeing him up for shots. It’s no different than watching the Boston Celtics set things up for Ray Allen to come around multiple screens and let it fly, usually behind the three-point line. It was the same song and dance for Richardson, and he had his way with the Bulls. And Nelson did a great job of regularly setting Richardson up for catch-and-shoot jumpers in rhythm.
As for Anderson, he was phenomenal. Anderson is a tough matchup for Joakim Noah because of his ability to spread the floor. Usually Anderson plays the role of a stretch four for Orlando but with Howard not playing, he evolved into a rare stretch five and Noah had troubles guarding him. As a result, head coach Tom Thibodeau played Gibson major minutes to try to slow down Anderson. That speaks volumes to the type of performance Anderson was having.
Especially at the start of the second half, in which Anderson went nova. In the span of six minutes from the beginning of the third quarter, Anderson scored 12 points with ease and did it in a variety of ways — tip-ins on offensive rebounds, dunks, and three-pointers. Efficiency is the name of the game and Anderson scored in the most efficient ways possible. It was a great display from Anderson on offense and the Magic needed every bit of it, as scoring was at a premium.
Unfortunately for Orlando, despite Richardson, Nelson, and Anderson putting on a magnificent display, their defense was bad. Needless to say, if Howard was on the court, Chicago wouldn’t have shot 60 percent from the field and Rose wouldn’t have attacked the basket endlessly, piling up layup after layup and putting together an efficient outing of 39 points on 13-of-17 shooting. Howard is the defense for the Magic and without him, the Bulls scored at will.
That, more than anything else, was the difference in the game. It’s not difficult for Orlando to make up for Howard’s absence on offense because other players can take on his scoring load. But there is no one on the Magic that can replace Howard’s presence defensively.
If there’s anything to take away from this loss for Orlando, it’s that Van Gundy needs to explore the idea of either starting Anderson at the power forward position or playing him the majority of the time in a possible matchup with the Bulls.
One of the reasons that the Magic have become ordinary offensively this season is because the identity by which they were potent in the first place, by almost always having a stretch four on the floor, has been neutered a bit by Van Gundy’s decision to equally distribute minutes between Bass and Anderson. The problem with Bass is that he isn’t able to spread the floor like Anderson.
Anderson can give Orlando that extra oomph offensively. As it is, the Magic’s margin for error this year is small and given that Anderson does several things a tad bit better than Bass on offense, that means a lot. For Van Gundy, it’s an idea worth exploring, given that Anderson brings more to the table in a prospective series against Chicago than Bass.
It’s true that Orlando’s starting lineup is better with Bass at power forward but the league is about matchups and this is one that needs to be exploited.