The Orlando Magic weathered a Michael Jordan barrage to take a 2-1 lead in this series, and give them real hope of winning this series.
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. But that was only supposed to be the start for them. Already we’ve broken down Game 1 and Game 2. In Game 3, the Magic wrestled control back.
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The final score was 110-101, but that was misleading because of how close this game was throughout. Jordan, who put up a heroic 40 points, actually making a couple of bad decisions, including fouling Penny Hardaway on a 3-pointer in the final couple of minutes that would allow the Magic to pull away and squeeze out a win. To do so in those classic pinstriped blue jerseys made it all the sweeter.
The game plan for the Bulls early on in this one however was clear: Take their defensive pressure and turn it up a couple of notches. They achieved this in the first quarter especially (although in the third quarter limited the Magic to 15 points), forcing the Magic into rushed shots and away from their spots. Hardaway in particular was targeted, creating some real concerns for Game 4 in the process.
Throughout this series there have been only modest bursts of what Hardaway can do, and that was before the Bulls starting forcing the ball out of his hands as soon as he’d crossed the halfway line. Once that started in this contest, he was unable to find a rhythm, although to say he struggled all game would be unfair. A couple of times in the second half he got to the basket.
If his jumper had gone down more often that would have opened the court up for him even more, but it did not. Yet to look at Hardaway’s numbers, 19 points and a team-high eight assists, you would think he had a big impact on the game. He continues to get his numbers and he found Shaquille O’Neal in transition a good bit, but it happens in such a way that you don’t notice half the time.
Horace Grant on the other hand still looks super comfortable in the moment. His mid-range jumpers feel automatic, and you have to wonder now if he’d moved out to the 3-point line throughout his career, would he have been a lock to make the Hall of Fame? Perhaps he should be in anyway?
Jordan did Jordan things, but there was a key stretch in the third when he went to the bench with over two minutes remaining, and Scottie Pippen went nuclear and piled in seven points and brought a whole lot of emotion which we haven’t always seen. Jordan checked back in for the last possession of the quarter with 15 seconds left, but Pippen took the shot. He missed.
The other star for the Bulls in this one though was B.J. Armstrong. He went 3-for-5 from deep, doing his best Steve Kerr impression and keeping the points ticking over when Jordan had a lull in scoring (he scored 31 of his 40 points in the first half). Kerr himself chipped in with two 3-pointers as well.
In retaliation the Orlando Magic used the dominance of O’Neal, who had a team-high 28 points and again had success at the line going 8-for-10. But on this occasion he got real help from Nick Anderson (22 points, 3-of-6 from deep) and Dennis Scott (only 10 points, but his lone 3-point make came at a crucial time to cut the lead of the Bulls to two points with 6:31 left in the game.
So while it was great to see all five Orlando Magic starters score over 10 points (Grant had 18), the bench was a cause for concern. There was too much Anthony Avent, with the most notable thing he looks like he’s capable of doing is keeping that 00 jersey warm for future Aaron Gordon to drop hammers in.
Avent did next to nothing, while Anthony Bowie was unfortunate to get called for a flagrant foul in the second half that seemed a harsh call. There was 10 minutes of Donald Royal, which seemed too high, with Brian Shaw their best producer off the bench, scoring nine points. The telecast mentioned head coach Brian Hill losing confidence in him, but he at least made some shots.
But really then if the Magic are going to do what seems impossible and knock off Jordan in the playoffs (even if this is baseball Jordan), then they are going to need a little bit more from their bench, and a breakout game for Hardaway. O’Neal and Grant are doing all they can, especially with O’Neal hitting as many free-throws as he has in this series.
The Orlando Magic are younger and athletic and love to get up and down the court, dump it into Shaq but also take 3-pointers. The Bulls are more methodical, and you get the feeling their defensive pressure is only going to continue. It took a lot for the Magic to win this one, and they only just managed to do it. This looks for all the world like a series that will go seven games right now.