So how would the team handle hardship when it inevitably arrived?
As it turned out, badly.
The Magic were outplayed and outhustled by the Bulls, and the 97-83 home loss prompted their coach to draw a stark assessment of how the team compares to the NBA’s elite.
“Quite simply, we’re not at that level,” Van Gundy said.
“We’re not at that level right now. Not close. And that’s OK. I’m not saying that crying or complaining. That’s just the way it is. You’ve got to face reality, and we have to put in the work to try and reach that level, because, right now, we’re not close to that level of play.”
Van Gundy found his team lacking on the boards, in ball movement and in toughness. The Bulls corralled 14 offensive rebounds and outrebounded the Magic overall 46 to 37. The Magic also received minimal contributions from power forward Ryan Anderson, point guard Jameer Nelson and shooting guard J.J. Redick.
Orlando now has played two games this season against teams that have winning records, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Bulls, and the Magic lost each game. The sample size is too small to draw definitive conclusions, but the Magic (5-3) performed badly both times.
Deng scored 21 points, Boozer had 20 and the duo keyed a run midway through the second quarter in which the Bulls took control of the game.
Korver chipped in 18, and his 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter extended the Bulls’ lead to 83-77 after the Magic had regained the game’s momentum and were on the verge of a big second-half comeback.
“In a big game like this, we have to show up no matter if we’re making shots or not,” said Orlando shooting guard Jason Richardson, who finished with 17 points.
“We’ve got to do something to help this team win, and I think that’s the road we’ve got to cross. I don’t think we’re a long ways away. I think we’re right there, but we’ve got to do those little things. We can’t have a team come in here and get that many offensive rebounds and just outwork us completely.”
Howard finished with 28 points and 15 rebounds, both game-highs.
And he and power forward Glen Davis provided Orlando with almost all of its toughness.
After a terrible performance in a win over Washington on Wednesday, Davis returned to his dirty-work ways, hauling in 10 rebounds to go with eight points. He also dropped to Amway Center’s parquet floor several times to gather lose basketballs.
Early in the fourth quarter, Davis fell onto the court beyond the baseline and was motionless on his back for a few moments. Howard stood over him, pressed on Davis’ chest and pretended to shock Davis back to life.
Davis eventually reached his feet, but he and Howard couldn’t provide enough electricity to overcome their team’s shortcomings.
Reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose made the Bulls go, as he almost always does, scoring 21 points, dishing out 10 assists and grabbing eight rebounds.
But he didn’t do it alone.
Trailing 34-33 in the second quarter, the Bulls went on a game-changing 15-2 run.
It started when Korver drained a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired, and it continued as Boozer and Deng took advantage of Magic defensive breakdowns and turnovers.
Boozer and Deng combined to score the Bulls’ next 12 points.
“We did anything to win,” Rose said. “That was the whole mindset.”
No Magic player had a rougher night than Anderson, the 23-year-old starting power forward who had starred on offense early this season.
Plagued by a 2-for-10 shooting night, Anderson finished with only five points and three rebounds, and he caused some defensive breakdowns that gave Boozer easy baskets.
“The real issue is he just didn’t get in the battle tonight at all,” Van Gundy said of Anderson.
“He didn’t rebound the ball. He missed some rotations defensively. He just didn’t get in the battle tonight. Why? I don’t know. But he did not get in the battle tonight.”
In the postgame locker room, Anderson stopped at Howard’s stall, and he and Howard sat in chairs and talked calmly. Anderson explained later that he wanted to speak to Howard about what Howard expects from him.
“I just wanted to let him know that, yeah, I had an off-night,” Anderson said afterward. “But I want to come back and bring energy every night, and I want to play hard every night. It was just a little conversation. It wasn’t anything big.”
They spoke for about 10 minutes.
“I have a lot of confidence in Ryan,” Howard said. “We had a great talk, and it’s something that’s going to stay between me and him. But, like I told him, we all have to sacrifice something. We have to sacrifice our bodies, our minds and everything so we can win.
“He’s had some great games, and he’s had some games where he hasn’t shot the ball well. But for all of us, even if we’re not scoring, we still can do other things on the court. It’s something that we all have to do.”
But others had difficult games, too.
Nelson scored nine points and added just two assists as he committed three turnovers. Hedo Turkoglu scored 12 points and added three assists, but Deng often blew past him with ease. And Redick went 0 for 4 with just one point in 22-plus minutes.
“This isn’t crying or being negative, it’s just a fact: We’re not at that level right now,” Van Gundy said. “If we want to get to that level, which I think we do, then we’ve got a hell of a lot of work to put in and a great deal of focus to put into it.
“[The loss Monday in] Detroit was a bad night. Tonight wasn’t a bad night. Tonight, we got our asses kicked by a team who played the game a lot harder, with a lot more focus and a lot better.”
This was not the way the Magic wanted to play at home before a three-game West Coast road trip. That trip will be followed a few days later by a road game in New York.
Adversity might lurk ahead.
So do chances to overcome that adversity.
Friday’s performance should leave them wanting another chance.
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