The Bulls host the Magic on Thursday at the United Center. A Magic team that's, well, the Magic.
The Magic are 12th in points per 100 possessions and 13th in points allowed -- right around the middle of the league -- but the losses are insanely awful. They have a lot of wins and are sitting in 3rd in the East at 25-15, but getting blown out along the way by teams like the Pistons and Hornets in January, as well as the Bobcats on Tuesday. They have impressive blowouts over the Heat, Pacers, and 76ers this season because that's what this team is.
The Magic are simply a team that wins when they play well and lose when they play bad; and when they're bad, they lose about as bad as any team in the league. They've only averaged 81.6 PPG in their losses, getting outscored by 160 points in those 15 losses. The Lakers, Sixers, Clippers, Timberwolves, Nuggets, Mavericks, Grizzlies, and Trail Blazers all have at least 15 losses, but by a lesser total margin.
It's no secret that their offense is Dwight Howard on the inside and 3-pointers on the outside with Dwight cleaning up the glass. Howard's lack of an offensive game is highly overstated, as he's scoring 20.7 PPG on 56.7% shooting. He doesn't have the down low dominance Shaquille O'Neal once had and doesn't have an intricate arsenal of moves like Hakeem Olajuwon, but the truth is that his athleticism is so ridiculous that no one can stop what he can do. Howard lacks aggressiveness here and there, but shooting 48.5% at the free throw line begs for opponents to send him there 10.8 times per game.
But the free throw shooting doesn't really matter against the Bulls. Throughout his career, he's scored 18.3 PPG on 60.7% shooting against the Bulls. In the Tom Thibodeau Era, those numbers skyrocket to 25.3 PPG on 65.5% shooting because it's one of the rare times you see the Bulls ease off the help defense. Thibs just lets Howard manhandle Joakim Noah while the other four Bulls stay home on shooters, prevent dribble penetration, and attempt to clog passing lanes to Howard; and the Bulls are 3-1 in those four games, only losing the first matchup.
The Magic by far lead the NBA is 3-pointers made (413) and are a strong .387 3P% (3rd in the NBA) that jumps way up to .421 in their wins. So, the oversimplification isn't crazy: stop Orlando from shooting the three well and you win the game. Those 3s get challenged and the ball has to go on the floor, forcing a less balanced shot or one from a less efficient spot on the floor.
Forcing missed jumpers makes offensive rebounding positioning more difficult for Howard. He's grabbing 3.7 per game this season, averages 4.5 per game against Thibs' Bulls, but that's going to happen if there are more missed shots.
Can Noah make those second chance points difficult for Howard? No one can. The Bulls aren't the dominant defensive rebounders they were last season, but Orlando's defense isn't the top five stoppers they were either. Derrick Rose is going to force Howard to help or maintain positioning at the rim. You can be for damned sure that Rose is gonna jack up some garbage here and there when Howard leaves the posts, knowing his NBA-best offensive rebounders are gonna' clean up the mess and draw loose ball fouls when Howard has to recover his positioning.
The Bulls have the best record in the league at 33-8. They've won eight straight, including three straight at home where they're 15-2 this season. The Magic are a good team with some talented players and a good coach, but they just play too awful too often for the Bulls to not force a revival of the Magic horrorshow they're so prone to whip out.
Howard's a great player and it's to be expected that he makes Noah look silly, especially in the first half, but the Magic's chances lie with defensive rebounding and the 3-point shooting of Ryan Anderson (.421), the undersized J.J. Redick (.461), the much slower than ever Jason Richardson (.379), and the always 1-for-14-shooting-night-waiting-to-happen Hedo Turkoglu (.356). In other words, the Bulls need to play really bad to lose.