The Bulls were out for a bit of revenge after getting smacked by the league-worst Magic when these teams played not long ago, but they didn’t have an easy time of things on Tuesday night at the United Center. The visitors hung around thanks to hot shooting and the Bulls’ porous defense, with the Magic even turning a 13-point deficit early in the fourth quarter into a 115-115 tie with 5:34 remaining after old friend Wendell Carter Jr. hit a jumper to give him a team-high 24 points.
But after struggling to contain the lowly Magic all night long, the Bulls finally buckled down on defense. They didn’t give up a single point the rest of the game to earn a 126-115 victory and surpass last season’s win total by getting to 32-18, which has them alone at the top of the Eastern Conference again. It helped that Orlando finally started to miss some shots, but Chicago made life tough on them and didn’t just give up easy layups or wide-open 3s, which was a theme for much of the game.
Meanwhile, rookie Ayo Dosunmu capped off a big day for him with back-to-back daggers after Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan buckets had made it a four-point game. Ayo nailed a mid-range jumper and then a 3-pointer on consecutive possessions to make it 124-115 with 1:46 to play, and that was all she wrote.
Ayo’s crunch-time heroics came after he was named to the Rising Stars Challenge:
Ayo finished with another stellar stat line of 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field and 3-of-5 from 3-point range to go along with nine assists and just one turnover as he continues to flash impressive playmaking ability as the starting point guard. This isn’t something I expected from him, and he’s truly doing a remarkable job filling in for Lonzo Ball as the starter at the point.
The Bulls were led in this one by, who else, DeRozan. The All-Star starter was unstoppable all night, going for 29 points on 12-of-20 shooting and even hitting multiple 3-pointers for the first time since Dec. 27. He also threw down this hammer dunk:
DDR added 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals, a block and committed just one turnover. He was also a plus-15 in 37 minutes. Just another terrific night at the office for DeRozan, some defensive sloppiness aside.
LaVine chipped in 26 points on 8-of-17 shooting to go along with five boards and three steals. Nikola Vucevic continued his run of stellar play with a much better performance against his former team than the last time out, going for 18 points, 13 boards, three blocks and two assists. Vooch bricked all five of his 3-pointers but went 8-of-12 inside the arc to make up for it. While he was outplayed again by WCJ (24/8/6 on 11-of-15 shooting), this was still a solid night for Vooch.
The Bulls shot 51.1% for the game and a respectable 11-of-30 from 3-point range. While the Magic were over 50% overall and 40% from 3 for most of the game before finally cooling off during that final stretch, the big differences came at the charity stripe and on the glass. Chicago shot 29 free throws and made 23 of them, compared to Orlando going just 9-of-11. The Bulls won the rebounding battle 49-36, bolstered by 11 offensive boards.
This would have been a really ugly loss for the Bulls, especially given the upcoming schedule, but they were able to buckle down and make enough plays to win. This young Magic group is admittedly feisty, with Carter always playing like an All-Star against his former team (Seriously, where was this aggression in Chicago?) and Franz Wagner and Cole Anthony consistently making things happen against a Bulls defense that just isn’t up to snuff without Ball and Alex Caruso (the Magic had 63 points at halftime and 94 points through three quarters). Still, this would have been an inexcusable loss, but the Bulls did well to avoid the meltdown.
They now have a day off before going on the road for a game up in Toronto against the Raptors, who just beat the Heat again. Gary Trent Jr. is still on his ridiculous heater, and this is going to be a really tough game up in Canada.