At this point, the Bulls are specializing in heartbreak.
In what can only be described as an ugly performance by both teams, the Bulls (9-13) fell to the Magic (8-17), 83-82, Monday night at the United Center. But it wasn’t just the fact that the Bulls lost for the 11th time in 14 games or that they lost to another team that can’t be called a powerhouse, it was how they lost: All-Star small forward Luol Deng missed a game-tying attempt at a layup with 2.9 seconds to go.
The evening started innocently enough, as the Bulls scored the first six points of the contest. But it quickly went downhill from there, as the young Magic scored 15 consecutive points, leading to two timeouts by Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who also attempted to halt the carnage via substituting earlier than usual.
But the combination of 5-for-22 shooting in the opening period and solid play from Magic veterans Arron Afflalo (23 points) and Glen “Big Baby” Davis resulted in the Bulls facing a 21-14 deficit after a quarter of play.
Veteran backup point guard D.J. Augustin — the Bulls’ newest acquisition entered the game in the previous frame, replacing starter Marquis Teague, who was filling in for the injured Kirk Hinrich for the second game in a row — provided a boost early in the second quarter with his quickness and playmaking ability, the latter of which benefited the scoring of Deng and fellow Duke product Mike Dunleavy Jr.
Still, the Magic were able to maintain a comfortable margin of separation, thanks to contributions from experienced floor general Jameer Nelson and young players like big man Nikola Vucevic and forward Tobias Harris, though prized rookie guard Victor Oladipo struggled with his shot. In addition to their shooting woes, defensive lapses and a deficiency on the glass were key factors in the Bulls trailing, 43-35, at the intermission.
After the break, Orlando’s lead ballooned to double digits, as Afflalo, who could be on the way to his first All-Star campaign, led the way. But the Bulls battled back in the third quarter and gradually trimmed the deficit behind Deng’s (26 points, eight rebounds) all-around game and Augustin’s (14 points, eight assists) blend of scoring and playmaking.
Heading into the final stanza, however, the Bulls were still behind, 67-59, as the Magic’s rebounding and three-point shooting also buoyed the visitors.
Deng finally needing a rest and Augustin picking up his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter didn’t help matters for the Bulls, but their guests couldn’t fully capitalize, as the Magic’s second unit played sloppy enough basketball to not be able to put away the home team, which used free-throw shooting to stay within striking distance. But behind the savvy Nelson and rugged Davis, Orlando still managed to maintain a relatively comfortable cushion midway through the period.
As the defensive struggle entered the stretch run, the Bulls couldn’t seem to get over the hump, but an Augustin triple off an offensive rebound by All-Star center Joakim Noah (13 points, eight rebounds) with 1:16 remaining cut it to an 80-77 game, in the Magic’s favor. After both teams traded defensive stops, Noah made a running left-handed shot out of a Bulls timeout, cutting it to a one-point affair with 19.4 seconds left.
Forced to foul, the Bulls somehow allowed precious seconds to tick off the clock before finally fouling Afflalo with 6.8 seconds to go. The Magic swingman split his pair of foul shots to make it an 81-79 game, giving the Bulls the option to either go for the win or tie.
Following a timeout, a masterfully drawn-up out-of-bounds play saw Deng inbound the ball to Noah and the center make a beautiful backdoor pass to his fellow All Star for a layup, which the small forward inexplicably missed. Davis was fouled after the rebound and made a pair of attempts from the charity stripe before Dunleavy (14 points) hit a buzzer-beating heave from halfcourt.
Of course he did, completing a fitting end to the night.