The Bulls have seemingly washed away the memory of Jimmy Butler from the United Center, but his oft-frustrated words seemed to ring through the mouth of Fred Hoiberg after their third straight loss, a 124-115 decision to the Toronto Raptors.
“We didn’t guard anybody,” Butler would usually say.
Hoiberg borrowed the phrase, as the Bulls’ obvious slippage on defense that had been masked by previous offensive excellence through their recent resurgence.
Granted, Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan was already on a Central Division tear, having just dropped 52 points on the Milwaukee Bucks, so it wasn’t difficult to foresee him delivering in a similar manner, giving the Bulls a 35-point showing.
Previously allergic to the 3-point line, DeRozan has shown an adaptability to the new way the game is played, adopting the long line into his complete offensive package.
Over the course of 48 minutes he made the Bulls feel like orphans, hitting 5 of 8 from deep, including his usual helping of attacks to the basket, going 10-for-10 from the free-throw line.
The Bulls had given up over 100 in five of their last six games but have been able to outscore opponents late, but with Kris Dunn having a 1-for-8 night, they didn’t have his usual burst in the fourth quarter.
And they needed something to combat DeRozan getting hot in the second half, as they opened the floodgates to a Raptors team that scored 103 points in the final 36 minutes.
All he needed was a little help, especially as backcourt mate Kyle Lowry was struggling a bit to get going. DeRozan found it on Delon Wright, whose energy matched the player he was drafted two picks in front of in 2015, the usually bouncy Bobby Portis. Scoring 15 of his career-high 25 in the first half, Wright infused the Raptors with his energy, often climbing amongst the trees inside for some of his career-high 13 rebounds.
He added five assists and four steals to complete the dominant performance, as the Raptors often went to a three-guard setup to stymie the Bulls. If not for his second quarter, there wouldn’t have been a competitive game in the fourth for the Raptors to wake up and take control of the game.
“The bench really saved us tonight,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “They came in and gave us energy. We couldn’t get our mojo going with our first unit. Delon came in, had a career-high and I really like the way he’s going up for rebounds.”
The Bulls’ second unit? The one that seemed to buoy them over the past couple weeks with energy and movement, overwhelming defenses? It devolved into a bunch of shot-hunting in the second quarter as the Bulls coughed up control of the game and a 10-point lead within minutes.
“The biggest thing we talked about is coming out with a defensive edge,” Hoiberg said. “We did it, but didn’t sustain it.”
The numbers will say the Bulls shot a respectable 52 percent in the period, but the eyes say guys were looking to get theirs, abandoning the ball movement that had become so fruitful recently.
“We were hunting shots,” Hoiberg admitted, as if he could lie about what was obvious to anyone watching. “And when they went on their run, we got to move it, and get good solid possessions. We were coming out and jacked up contested shots with zero or one passes. And you can’t have that.”
Amazingly, this bunch hasn’t yet turned on itself, and Wednesday could be an anomaly—this was their third game in four nights and if one is keeping track of the schedule, the start of another three-game in four-night stretch with a back-to-back in Dallas and Indianapolis looming.
It could be easily written off or the Bulls could’ve been playing with fire this entire time, free-wheeling and aggressive, scoring well into the 110’s and 120’s for the past several weeks.
Freedom has its benefits, within structure and the Bulls seemed to be a little too liberal with it, especially since they didn’t defend for the third straight game dating back to their New Year’s Eve loss to the Wizards where they surrendered 31 in the fourth quarter followed by 29 in the fourth to a Damian Lillard-less Trailblazers squad.
Portis wasn’t his usual self, and energetic David Nwaba played 16 nondescript minutes, being a team-worst minus-18 in his time.
Nikola Mirotic stayed aggressive in his 25 minutes, going seven for 17 to score 20 points. Eleven of those came in the fourth after the Raptors used a 16-4 run to turn a tie game into a 106-94 spread, and the Bulls never seriously threatened after.
“We just didn’t have enough grit tonight,” guard Justin Holiday said. “We let them score 103 points in three quarters and that’s not good. Defensively we didn’t do our job. Hats off to them. They have great players, but we didn’t do a good job defensively. That’s pretty much it.”
Holiday did his best to match DeRozan, scoring 26 and hitting six triples of his own, including multiple four-point play opportunities—which is becoming a quiet hallmark.
Lauri Markkanen had his way with Serge Ibaka, scoring 22 with 12 rebounds, often scoring inside early on switches with smaller guards and then later taking Ibaka off the dribble for smooth, veteran-like midrange jumpers.
But it wasn’t nearly enough, as the Bulls don’t have the margin for error to go shot-for-shot with more talented, experienced teams.
It bit them in the behind.
“The fourth quarter comes down to—you have to have your winning mentality,” Hoiberg said. “They were the team that came out and threw the first blow, and we never recovered.”