TORONTOFor the games first three quarters, the Bulls (39-10) appeared as if, like in last Fridays surprising home loss to Portland, they were resting on their laurels after a big win and had overlooked an inferior opponent.
Until the fourth quarter hit, that is, as the visitors to Canada, were poor guests and with a dominant defensive effort from the Bench Mob, blew away the bewildered Raptors (15-32), to end a two-game road trip with a 94-82 victory Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre.
Maybe it was the camouflage-themed uniformsworn in honor of Canadas armed forcesthat disoriented them, but the Bulls, coming off arguably their best defensive performance of the season, allowed the high-scoring Raptors, propelled by the point production of athletic swingman DeMar DeRozan (23 points, six rebounds), to make it a high-scoring affair in the early going.
Countering for the visitors was first-time All-Star Luol Deng (17 points, 10 rebounds), who appeared to be in pre-wrist injury form, as he was efficient scoring the ball in a variety of ways, yet still showcased his all-around skills.
Along with the playmaking of floor general Jose Calderon, former Bulls reserve James Johnson (16 points, seven rebounds), in a starting role for the hosts, was another reason Toronto was able to jump out to an early edge and even after their guests caught up and eventually, take the lead.
But with Joakim Noah pounding the boards in his typical fashion, as well as displaying his underrated ability to distribute the ball, and C.J. Watson (13 points) bouncing back after a rough offensive outing Monday in Orlando, the Bulls were able to take a 27-23 advantage into the second quarter.
The offensive battle between Deng and DeRozan continued into the second period and the game remained a close-knit contest, as the Bulls allowed the home team to shoot a higher percentage than desired with many of the Raptors opportunities coming in transition.
The visitors also endured surprising ball-security issues, considering their opponents usual sieve-like defense, and found themselves in a shallow hole, as Toronto, buoyed by the play of frontcourt reserves Aaron Gray and Linas Kleiza, built a slim cushion.
Despite a stated desire to not allow the contest to be a so-called trap game, following an impressive road victory Monday in Orlandoin which the Bulls set a franchise record for the fewest points allowed to an opponent in a regular-season gameit certainly appeared they werent playing with the urgency and intensity that has marked this stellar campaign thus far.
At the intermission, the Bulls trailed, 51-43, following a deep jumper by star forward Andrea Bargnani toward the end of the first half.
After the break, the Bulls offensive woes continued, while the Raptors remained potent on that end of the floor and quickly took a double-digit lead over their supposed upper-echelon guests.
However, the tough-minded bunch from Chicago fought back and used a rapid 6-0 spurt, led by Watson and swingman Ronnie Brewer (13 points), to get back within striking distance.
The hosts wouldnt let up, though, and with DeRozan maintaining his hot hand, as well as contributions from a variety of sources, including Johnson and frontcourt partner Amir Johnson, the Raptors took full advantage of Chicagos offensive ineptitude to keep the breathing room they had earned.
With the Bulls bench providing little to nothing in the way of helping to staunch the bleedingin fairness, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau turned to them sparinglythe visitors were the wrong end of a 69-62 score through three quarters of play.
At the outset of the final stanza, sparkplug John Lucas III (14 points, four assists), whos more familiar than most with the Air Canada Centre rims, led a Bulls comeback with the instant-offense scoring and intelligent playmaking that has become so familiar as of late.
Lucas, along with the Bench MobTaj Gibsons athleticism, Omer Asiks defense and Kyle Korvers (10 points) outside marksmanship were other highlights of the blitzand Deng, left the Raptors absolutely shell-shocked, as the visitors went on a 20-0 run, holding the hosts scoreless for exactly 20 minutes.
Each of the players on the floor had their moments, but the Bulls familiar theme, defense, truly carried them as the game entered its stretch run.
Although the first three periods were far from ideal, the fourth and final frame embodied why the Bulls, even without reigning league MVP Derrick Rose, have the leagues top record, are a dominant defensive unit and even after an NBA-best 62-win season a year ago, have evolved into a squad capable of beating the odds on a nightly basis, as they cruised to the win in the games waning moments.