Bulls earn important victory, keep Raptors on notice in the process


Bulls earn important victory, keep Raptors on notice in the process

Toronto real estate is going through a boom right now, so the Raptors shouldn’t just give it away so freely to the likes of the Chicago Bulls.

But as any Chicagoan knows, if there’s affordable real estate in a great place, you’d better jump on it, so the Bulls planted themselves firmly where the sign was placed—in the Raptors’ psyche.

It doesn’t matter who is wearing a Bulls’ uniform, be it Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler—heck, it could be Eddie Robinson or Norm Van Lier, but there seems to be a mental hurdle the Raptors can’t leap.

Butler’s strip of DeMar DeRozan’s late drive with less than a second left sealed a 109-107 win over the Raptors at Air Canada Centre Monday night, arguably the biggest win of the Bulls’ season to date.

It’s not lost on anyone that it’s nine straight wins over the Raptors, a team the Bulls could see in the No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup if the Bulls qualify for the playoffs, but the Bulls also averted disaster and showed some mental toughness in one of the tougher environments in the NBA.

“I guarded him plenty,” said Butler of DeRozan, his fellow All-Star guard. “I know if you bring that ball down you have to bring it up to get to the basket. Luckily I had a quick enough hand to get a piece of it and hit it off his knee and we took it the other way.”

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Butler scored 13 points in 33 minutes in his return, and atoned for missing the front half of two free throws right before the Raptors’ final possession. The Bulls overcame themselves and their lack of personnel to push them one game over .500.

Adversity in the form of nearly blowing a 106-100 lead with a minute left, getting called for a five-second violation when they couldn’t get the ball inbounds at the 25.8 second mark and letting the Raptors get close enough to steal a win they had no business in.

“That was a huge play by Jimmy,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Just made a heck of a play on the ball. They set that screen high and Jimmy fought through it, stayed on his hip and made a great defensive play.”

In one of the huddles after the five-second call, Taj Gibson—forced into playing center with no Pau Gasol—yelled out the rallying call: “Finish the game!”

They did it nearly with their “B” team, as it wasn’t Butler with a Jordan-like performance like their last visit to the north, nor was Rose in uniform, still recovering from a groin injury. Mike Dunleavy was even back at the team hotel with the flu and Gasol was back in Chicago recovering from a knee injury.

No matter, since Doug McDermott seems to own the Raptors recently. After going for 30 a couple weeks back at the United Center, he did it again off the bench with 29 points—24 in the first half. He was joined by E’Twaun Moore, who hit eight of his first nine for 17 points.

“I give them a lot of credit for coming out the gate with the mentality that they did, setting the tone early was very important,” Hoiberg said. “Doug had it going and they did a good job of finding him, but they showed a lot of resolve, a lot of grit, a lot of toughness.”

Those adjectives are usually reserved for Bulls teams of a previous vintage, but the Bulls pulled this bottle of wine deep from the cellar, and began drinking from the lip from the tip.

The Bulls jumped out to an 13-4 lead, setting the tone for what was to come as they played with the requisite concentration and focus that only seems to appear every once in a while.

And the Raptors were ready to give it all away, despite DeRozan scoring 27 and All-Star mate Kyle Lowry leading everyone with 33 and 11 rebounds, as they combined for 24 points in a frantic late fourth quarter flurry.

Although Patrick Patterson scored 13 off the bench, it was a two-man show for the Raptors and the Bulls took a 13-point lead early in the fourth and led by 10 midway through, with solid contributions from Nikola Mirotic’s 17 and Gibson’s 13 points and 10 rebounds.

“We were thin on the numbers tonight,” Hoiberg said.

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But the Raptors played into the Bulls’ hands. Fouling 3-point shooters, complaining about the officials, taking the Bulls for granted and at times, playing at half speed. For most of the night, they looked nothing like the team that had won 15 of 16 at home—against a team that hadn’t won a road game in over a month.

“I don’t know, maybe we match up well against them,” Butler said. “They’re a really good team. I can see how they’ve been winning games but I think we bring it every night against them.”

The Bulls outshot the Raptors, 49 percent to 45, and the Bulls had five players in double figures, along with missing just one free throw the entire evening.

In other words, they closed a lot of gaps in personnel with performance.

They Raptors had a quick surge to pull the game to within seven at the end of the third quarter but when Terrence Ross left McDermott alone on the wing—a no-no on a bad McDermott day—the lead was back to 13 with 10 minutes to play.

Unlike the last two losses, the Bulls took care of the ball, running the offense with precision and most of all, confidence, committing just six turnovers through the first 36 minutes.

McDermott and Moore started off the first quarter 9-9, then McDermott kept the torch in the second. Back to back triples, including a four-point play, pushed the lead near double-figures before the Raptors nearly imploded.

Jason Thompson successfully pulled the chair on Gibson but the officials called a foul, much to the chagrin of Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who picked up a technical foul.

On the ensuing possession, they picked up more technical fouls and their focus was indeed off.

And the Bulls finally took advantage, finally being the team with composure, heeding Hoiberg’s prayers and listening to Gibson’s final words.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment


Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie


Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”