Bulls, Magic leave the country for matchup in Mexico
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In the mid-1990s, a trip to Mexico City with the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic would have displayed stars such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O'Neal on an international stage.
Now the 27th time the league plays a game in Mexico involves one team coming off two humbling showings and another trying to find their way after a coaching change.
The Magic will be the home team Thursday night when they face the Bulls at Mexico City's Arena Ciudad de Mexico in the NBA's eighth regular-season game played in Mexico.
While the Bulls have never played a game in Mexico, the Magic participated in a preseason game there in 2012. After facing Chicago, they will host the Utah Jazz on Saturday in Mexico.
Including preseason games, it will Orlando's 11th international game in team history. The Bulls will be playing their first regular-season international game in team history and their first international game since a 2013 preseason game in Brazil.
Location aside, both teams will be trying to reverse some of their recent results.
Orlando (12-15) is three games below .500 for the first time since it was 4-7 after a seven-point home loss to the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 7.
The Magic went 8-5 in their next 13 games after falling three below but also are 3-6 in their last nine games since Nov. 18 after taking double-digit losses to Indiana on Friday and at Dallas on Monday.
In equaling their second-largest margin of defeat, the Magic shot 36 percent and missed 20 of 28 3-point attempts on a night when they allowed Dallas to shoot 42.7 percent.
"These trips are always fun, going to a different city and a different country and you'll get to see some things you usually wouldn't (see)," Orlando center Nikola Vucevic told reporters Monday. "We can be tourists in the summer, but for now it's important for us to focus on these next two games and play better as a team.
"If we could get these next two games, it would be huge for us. We can't get too much under .500 if we want to stay in the race for the playoffs."
Vucevic is coming off one of his worst games when he scored a season-low eight points and was 4 of 15 from the field. Despite the subpar showing, Vucevic is averaging 18.3 in his last four games and has reached at least 20 points in 11 of his last 16.
Vucevic's poor night occurred when Evan Fournier sat out because of a personal matter and rookie Mo Bamba to a team suspension. Both are expected to return for the next two games, but Jonathon Simmons tweaked his right ankle during Wednesday's practice and may sit out.
"We go to Mexico City and we play the Bulls and Utah, so first we'll focus on the Bulls and try to get that game," Vucevic said. "We just have to do much better than tonight (Monday) and I have to do a better job leading the team, as well."
The Bulls will be playing their fifth game since Jim Boylen took over for Fred Hoiberg. Chicago played two close games while losing at Indiana and beating Oklahoma City in Boylen's first two games, but the next two resulted in blowout losses.
On Saturday, the Bulls absorbed the worst loss in team history, 133-77 to Boston. Boylen attempted to call a practice on Sunday after the second night of a back-to-back, but some players threatened to boycott it.
Instead, the Bulls had two hours of team meetings that involved management and followed a players-only meeting. On Monday, the Bulls lost for the 13th time in 15 games by getting outscored 63-33 in the second half of a 108-89 loss to the Sacramento Kings.
On Tuesday, the Bulls announced the formation of a leadership committee to help improve communication.
"I want the leadership group because they will have input on what we do and how we operate," Boylen told reporters after practice Tuesday. "It doesn't mean that I'm not the head coach and they're the players, but they're going to be respected as men at this level."
Zach LaVine is reportedly among the key voices in developments of the forming the leadership council and scored 19 points in Monday's loss. He was among those who took issue with Boylen questioning the players' toughness after the loss to Boston.
"We're just trying to figure out the right dudes to lead the team who will be with us moving forward," LaVine told reporters. "But I think it's a great thing, especially with a young team."
The leadership committee also is being formed as the Bulls are getting healthier.
Lauri Markkanen is averaging 15.6 points in five games since returning from a sprained elbow on Dec. 1. Bobby Portis and Kris Dunn both returned Monday from lengthy absences with knee injuries.
Chicago has won the last five meetings against Orlando.
Updated December 13, 2018