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Nikola Vucevic helps Bulls break bad habits in his homecoming

Coach Billy Donovan was getting a bit concerned with his players’ production in third quarters lately, but that problem was fixed temporarily in Orlando, where the Bulls throttled the Magic on an emotional night for Vucevic.

Bulls center Nikola Vucevic sets up for a shot in front of Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. on Friday in Orlando, Fla.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

There would be no slow start in the second half Friday. No lethargic moments, no inability to self-motivate.

Nothing like what happened in Houston.

On an emotional night when center Nikola Vucevic returned to Orlando to face his former team, the Bulls (13-7) focused on righting the wrongs of their loss to the Rockets on Wednesday, convincingly defeating the Magic 123-88.

This time, they had not only a halftime lead over the less-talented Magic (4-16) but an understanding of how to come out in the third quarter, which they didn’t have against the Rockets or last week against the Trail Blazers. Enough was enough for coach Billy Donovan.

“We’re all part of the group, so I am responsible as the head coach,” Donovan said. “I know they’re grown men, but I’ve got to keep putting it on them that they’ve got to solve that. We can’t be a good team and keep on doing that. That’s focus and concentration.

“I’m a big believer that the best players on the best teams are internally motivated. They’re not externally motivated. They don’t go out there and look at the scoreboard, look out there and someone says something to them and that excites them. There’s got to be internal drive. We have shown signs of doing that, but we haven’t shown signs of doing it consistently enough.”

The Bulls took a 55-46 lead into halftime, then came out with an 18-8 run to start the third quarter.

“I thought the guys did a really good job responding,” Donovan said. “It was good to see us come out of the locker room to start the second [half] the way we did.”

The Bulls outscored the Magic 35-23 in the third quarter, shooting 61% from the field and holding them to 1-for-6 from three-point range, where the Rockets feasted on the Bulls in the third quarter Wednesday.

Vucevic scored a workmanlike 16 points on 7-for-13 shooting and had eight rebounds and three assists.

The All-Star center, who spent nine seasons with the Magic, made sure his entire family was “back home’’ for his first return since being traded in March. He said Wednesday he harbored no hard feelings against the Magic, who he said were honest with him throughout trade talks.

“It was definitely emotional just being back in this building,” Vucevic said. “It was a lot to take in. As the game went on, I was getting better with it, and I was able to get myself a little more together. It was a lot to deal with.

“I still feel like I’m not there 100% [after being out with the coronavirus], but it is what it is at this point, and I just have to continue to work.”

The key player the Magic acquired from the Bulls in the Vucevic trade, Wendell Carter Jr., finished with a game-high 26 points, along with 10 rebounds.

“He played great,” Vucevic said. “He had a lot to prove, too.”

DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 23 points, while Zach LaVine chipped in 21.