This might not quite be a measuring stick game. Not this early in the season. Not with a lot of development to go and two weeks of training camp still to catch up on.
It was a gut check though.
After an early season schedule against non-Playoff teams and teams with little or no expectation of anything this season, Orlando did know it would be in for a sterner challenge against Chicago on Friday night. With ESPN in town and even Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel preparing a feature on the Van Gundy brothers, the spotlight was on Orlando to prove the team was among the Eastern Conference's upper tier.
As of now, the Magic are not.
Chicago put the clamps on Orlando in the final three quarters, giving up 56 points in the final three quarters and 40 in the second half, opening up a lead as big as 17 points and finding the plays and ability to get the extra possession and get the extra basket. Orlando had the will to continually fight back and make Chicago sweat. But down by three points midway through the fourth quarter after a strong comeback, the offense went cold again.
The Bulls unleashed their strong defense, aggressive offense and smooth ball movement. Chicago ran away for another 17-, 18-point lead before it was over and Orlando lost its first home game 97-83.
Chicago's defense was absolutely smothering in the final half of the fourth quarter. The Magic hit some shots and found a rare stretch of offensive rhythm against the stingy Bulls. It was 80-77 after Howard's hook shot brought life into the Magic. The Bulls called the timeout and for seemingly the fourth or fifth time of the night, Kyle Korver killed all momentum with a 3-pointer. Chicago closed the game on a 20-6 run.
It featured the same kind of back breaking plays that helped Chicago build and maintain its lead.
It included Derrick Rose and several other Bulls being able consistently to turn the corner and get into the paint, pulling the Magic team apart and giving open lanes for quick passing and offensive rebounds. Rose scored 21 points and had 10 assists. Luol Deng was a big beneficiary of that with 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting.
The back breaker came from Korver, 18 points off the bench on 5-for-7 3-point shooting, and the offensive rebounding. Chicago totaled 14 offensive rebounds and seemed to score on just about every one of those. It was extremely deflating for a team that had recovered from playing some poor defense in the second quarter.
Give Orlando some credit for putting in a decent defensive effort in the second half. Chicago only had 44 points in the second half after getting whatever it wanted offensively in the first half. The Bulls ended up shooting 44.2 percent from the floor. What hurt was the inability to finish possessions and grab those defensive rebounds. With Rose and many other Bulls players turning the corner on just about every pick and roll, it pulled Dwight Howard and the other bigs out of position. It allowed Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson the ability to sneak in unblocked for rebounds. Chicago attacked the offensive glass pretty aggressively.
Yes, Dwight Howard had 15 rebounds and Glen Davis, in his best game in a Magic uniform, had 10. But Carlos Boozer grabbed five of his 13 rebounds on the offensive end. Noah grabbed four of his 10 there too. That is nine of the 14 offensive rebounds right there. That size and the need for Howard to be everywhere guarding the pick and roll or on dribble penetration just made it difficult for Orlando to manage everyone.
Still, it was a 3-point game late and the Magic made multiple comebacks after Chicago took control in the second quarter.
Stan Van Gundy noted after the game that the team has a lot of scorers but does not necessarily have the players that don't need shots to be effective. With so many scorers the ball sticks and the offense bogs down. Dwight Howard, who scored 28 points once again, had a big game but he was crowded and harried for much of the game as the Bulls swarmed and recovered off of him. The Bulls' length closed down the outside shot for much of the game as the Magic shot 7 for 20 from beyond the arc. They seemed to only make shots when they needed one to get back into the game, but never to take the lead.
It is hard to judge assists when Orlando shoots 40.0 percent from the floor. But the Magic need more than 15 assists to be successful.
It was clear from the first quarter and when the Magic made their comeback, that if the Magic attacked the basket they could be successful. Jameer Nelson had a lot of success driving in to find shooter on the perimeter even if he was not able to get his own shot off. But as the game went on, Chicago's length and discipline stopped those drives and made Howard the only option in the paint.
It is the problem the Magic have always had with their offense, so this is nothing new. Against an elite defense it just looks a whole lot worse.
As Stan Van Gundy said, quite simply, this team isn ot at the Bulls level. Not yet, if it can be.
Chicago was able to play with focus and precision for 48 minutes. Orlando had moments where the focus was clearly lacking. That is how fast break opportunities turn into turnovers and entry passes to the post end up intercepted. The Bulls were also much quicker to the ball and save for Howard and Davis and then Nelson and Turkoglu at times, the Magic did not have that same willingness to get physical and fight.
The season is still young, and so Van Gundy sang a bit of a song of positivity that the team can get to a championship level. But it was clear, measuring stick or not, the Magic are not there yet.