The Orlando Magic lost Game 4 to the Chicago Bulls in their conference semi-final series, and at 2-2 it is unclear which way the series will go.
The Chicago Bulls have had their moment with “The Last Dance“, ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary, and so they should. The greatest player of all-time in Jordan, vanquishing all who challenged him in the 1990s. Except for one. In 1995 the upstart Orlando Magic had a fantastic young core and looked set to close out the rest of the decade as a contender.
Which is why we’re dubbing this series “Their First Dance”. The Magic were on the come-up and would go on to the NBA Finals in the 1995 playoffs where they would lose to the Houston Rockets in disappointing fashion.
Instead the Bulls ended up winning relatively comfortably, with a final score of 106-95, but it was the Magic who struck first and flew out of the gates. They hit their first six shots and looked to want to play at a frantic pace, which caught the Bulls out initially. Then they did what all great teams do, and adapted their game plan to get back into the contest.
They quickly figured out the tempo and turned it against the Magic. They were able to do this by playing some of the great defensive basketball which they have used for much of the series so far. The key difference this game, however, was how they didn’t put as much pressure on Penny Hardaway. He had his best game of the series, but it wasn’t enough.
He had 16 points and six assists in a team-high 44 minutes, which was just as well because this was easily Shaquille O’Neal‘s worst game of the series. He may have had 17 points and 10 rebounds, but he tried to force things too much and attempted to bully the bigs of the Bulls but too often was called for offensive fouls or traveling.
Which left Horace Grant to once again step up and provide a little bit of everything. As usual, he came through, although during the first quarter the Bulls put up a quote Grant had made regarding fans that had said “I know there are great fans in Chicago, but there are greater fans in Orlando.” The got the crowd even more into it, which was the last thing the Magic needed.
Jordan was uncharacteristically passive for much of the first half, which worked in the favor of the Bulls and is a real worry for the Magic as they look to try and win Game 5. This allowed Toni Kukoc to flourish early and make some impressive shots, while Scottie Pippen had three 3-pointers and in general showed a ton of emotion on the defensive end to rile his teammates up.
Then when Jordan was needed he was able to step up and score important baskets. Unsurprisingly he finished with a team-high 26 points. What was surprising however was how point guard B.J. Armstrong played throughout the game. You could make the case he was the team’s best player, his 18 points and 5 assists hugely important in keeping the Magic at arm’s length.
Although the Bulls roared back in the first quarter and coasted in the second, the Magic did a much better job in coming out for the second half with more tempo. So much so that what looked like a game that was going to be a loss in which they would go down without a fight turned into a much closer affair.
This was where the Magic needed O’Neal to play more like he has so far in this series, but he was unable to do so. The bench, which has been poor throughout the series, chipped in with only 10 points. Brian Shaw, when he was on the court, was a whirlwind of wildness as well, taking ill-advised shots and not looking after the ball.
This wasn’t just on him however, the Magic having 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes of action to put them in a hole that, although they did admirably to get out of and back into the game, was ultimately one of the reasons they lost this game. To make this only a four-point game with under two minutes to go was probably the biggest positive to be taken from this contest.
Even though O’Neal played poorly and the bench non-existent again, they could have won this game. That is, above all, the thing that gives them the most hope in winning this series. That they can play badly and still have a chance. Hardaway, who somehow is only in his second season in the league during this series, is central to this, and again this was his best game of the series so far.
Dennis Scott finally found his shooting touch from deep as well, going 4-of-9 from 3-point range and putting up 20 points. A few more games like that and the Magic really could do the unthinkable and knock Jordan out of the postseason for the first time since 1990. Game 5 is hugely important if they want to do that.