CHICAGO — At some point in the next two months, maybe in the playoffs, the Orlando Magic will find themselves in a rough spot.
Perhaps they'll draw strength from what occurred Thursday night.
They completely squandered an 18-point lead but came back. A short while later, they allowed a 10-point lead to evaporate. And, with just a couple minutes left in regulation, they saw their starting point guard trip over their starting shooting guard, resulting in both players writhing in pain on the United Center court.
And, despite all that, the Magic still beat the Chicago Bulls 99-94.
"Our guys gave up the lead and then hung in there and fought real hard," coach Stan Van Gundy said. "It was a great win to beat them, the best team in the league."
The game looked all but lost when, with Chicago leading 91-89 with about 2:15 left to play, Jameer Nelson tripped over starting backcourt mate Jason Richardson, prompting both of them to fall to the ground. As Nelson clutched his right leg and Richardson grabbed his left leg, Kyle Korver missed a 3-pointer. Dwight Howard grabbed the rebound, and Orlando called a timeout.
Richardson did not return — he sprained his left ankle and will be listed as day-to-day — but Nelson did. On the ensuing possession, Nelson hit Howard on a lob just over Joakim Noah's outstretched hands, and Howard slammed the ball home to tie the score.
After Derrick Rose missed a jumper on Chicago's next trip down the floor, Nelson had a shot blocked by Rose. Nelson collected the ball and made a pass to wide-open Ryan Anderson, who sank a 3-pointer to put the Magic ahead 94-91.
"We were really resilient, and we made some good plays at the end," Anderson said.
Howard was in the middle of most of those plays. With the NBA trade deadline looming on March 15, his Magic career could be nearing its end. But he scored 29 points, hauled in 18 rebounds and blocked three shots.
"It's a great win for our team," Howard said. "We just have to continue to play this brand of basketball night-in and night-out, and we'll have a good chance of contending for a championship at the end of the season."
Of course, if Howard is traded, the Magic's chances of contending almost certainly will go down the tubes.
For one night at least, they could dream of better things. They snapped Chicago's eight-game winning streak and dealt Chicago only its third loss at United Center this season.
The Bulls were playing their fourth game in five nights, and it showed.
Rose, the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player, scored 17 points, but he missed 16 of his 22 shot attempts.
"We came out sluggish, got ourselves into a hole and couldn't dig ourselves out," Rose said.
But the Magic (26-15) were tired, too. They were playing their third game in four nights, all on the road.
Just a couple of days earlier, they took an early double-digit lead against the awful Charlotte Bobcats but were outplayed terribly during the second half and lost 100-84. And just a few days before that, the Magic led the Oklahoma City Thunder by double digits at home and lost that one, too.
An ugly pattern had emerged. Orlando would take an early lead, players would think they'd have an easy night and then they would falter.
That seemed to happen again Thursday against the Bulls (33-9).
Orlando shot lights-out early, making 15 of its first 20 attempts, and took a 37-22 lead into the second quarter.
But Chicago would erase that deficit, and took a 67-66 lead on a jumper midway through the third quarter by Carlos Boozer, who finished with a team-high 26 points.
The Magic fought back to go up 83-73 early in the fourth, but that lead didn't last long. Boozer put the Bulls ahead 91-89 on a jumper with 2:55 remaining in regulation.
Howard missed a layup on Orlando's next trip down the court, which set the stage for the play that sent both Nelson and Richardson to the floor.
It looked gruesome. Nelson tripped over Richardson, and Richardson's left leg twisted awkwardly.
And it felt awful, too.
When it occurred, Richardson believed he had suffered a season-ending injury. But X-rays revealed no fracture, and his left ankle did not swell terribly after the game.
He took some solace from the victory.
"We could have collapsed," he said. "That's showing some growth. At other times when we've had leads like that, we kind of collapsed. But we stayed through it and continued to battle. We kept on doing the right things on both the offensive and defensive ends.
"So, hopefully, we can grow off of this."
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