Bulls have no answer for big man Nikola Vucevic, Magic

Thanks to a slow start and a dwindling number of bodies in the frontcourt, the Bulls watched Vucevic impose his will. He scored a career-high 43 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in the Magic’s 123-119 victory. The teams meet again Saturday night in Orlando.

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It’s a little early in the season to be scoreboard-watching, but you wouldn’t necessarily blame Bulls guard Zach LaVine, now seven years into his NBA career without a whiff of playoff basketball.

LaVine didn’t have to glance up at the scoreboard Friday night at Amway Center to know he didn’t like what was happening in the Eastern Conference. It was playing out right in front of him.

With no answer for Magic center Nikola Vucevic from tipoff to the final horn, the Bulls lost 123-119 in the first of two back-to-back games in Orlando — and had only themselves to blame for yet another slow start and huge early deficit.

Vucevic scored a career high with 43 points and also had 19 rebounds. But the real gut punch — especially where LaVine is concerned — was falling to yet another team in the East that the Bulls (8-13) need to beat if they want to position themselves for a playoff spot, or at least one of the play-in games.

With the victory, the Magic improved to 9-14 and moved ahead of the Bulls in winning percentage.

“It’s unfortunate,” said LaVine, who had a team-high 26 points and eight assists. “We played well at times. Obviously, you try and go and win every game, but the teams that are real close to you that you need to jump on, like that New York game [Wednesday] and this game . . . you’ve got to give credit where credit is due. They played a full game and we didn’t. That’s been our m.o., and we’ve got to figure out how to play a full game.”

Just as pressing a concern is what to do with the veteran Vucevic in the rematch Saturday. He dismantled starting center Daniel Gafford most of Friday night. The Bulls also lost forward Lauri Markkanen to a sprained right shoulder in the second half.

With center Wendell Carter Jr. still on the shelf with a bruised quadriceps, the frontline continued to shrink.

“It’s a challenge,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Certainly having Wendell [out], and most likely Lauri [Saturday] and Otto [Porter Jr.] out, that certainly doesn’t help our team. We’re going to have to dig deeper in our bench.”

As bad as the Bulls played in the first half, as they have most of the season, they still found themselves with a chance to steal the game late. Point guard Coby White (16 points) hit a clutch three-pointer with 2:03 left to tie the score, but the Magic wasted no time in grabbing it back and going right to Vucevic, who hit a 12-footer.

LaVine tied the game again from the free-throw line, but Bulls killer Evan Fournier nailed a jumper to again put the home team up. White and Garrett Temple each missed a three-pointer that would have given the Bulls the lead, and when Magic rookie Cole Anthony was fouled with 54.9 seconds left, it became a free-throw game for the Magic.

A bright spot on a gloomy night was rookie Patrick Williams, 19, becoming the youngest Bull to reach 20 points in a game. The No. 4 overall pick finished with 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting and had seven rebounds.

“Just confidence,” Williams said. “Just knowing [Donovan] and the whole coaching staff has my back. That’s a huge strength of our team.”

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