Tom Thibodeau

Underdogs? Not so fast: Reliving the Bulls' dominance over the Raptors

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USA TODAY

Underdogs? Not so fast: Reliving the Bulls' dominance over the Raptors

Here’s something you’re going to hear quite a bit this season: the Bulls are underdogs tomorrow night. The official start to the rebuild begins as the Bulls travel to Toronto to face the Raptors tomorrow night on NBC Sports Chicago. Pregame Live begins at 6 p.m. with Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill.

The Raptors bring back Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and a host of other talent that helped Toronto earn the No. 3 seed in the East last year. They’ll be there this season, so the Bulls open the season with a daunting opponent. But fear not! The Bulls are underdogs, but there’s no opponent they’ve had more success against the last four seasons than the Raptors. The Bulls have won 11 of their last 12 games against Toronto, including 11 straight victories before last season’s late loss in Toronto.

Take a trip down memory lane and see how they did it, and then check back tomorrow night and see if they can get back to their winning ways against Dwane Casey’s group.

1. Feb. 19, 2014 (94-92)

The streak of 11 straight wins begins with an almost-awful collapse. The Bulls lead by as many as nine in the fourth quarter before a frantic comeback from Lowry and DeRozan, who combined for 14 points in a 4-minute span to pull within two points late. But DeRozan can’t close the deal, missing two shots in the final 3 seconds, securing a Bulls win.

2. Nov. 13, 2014 (100-93)

A back-and-forth first half includes five ties and nine lead changes. Then the Bulls decide in the third quarter they don’t care much for see-saws and take over. They close the quarter on a 17-5 run and lead by double-digits until late in the fourth quarter. The Raptors pull within five in the final minute but five Bulls free throws ice the game. Pau Gasol (27), Jimmy Butler (21) and Derrick Rose (20) combine for 68 points.

3. Dec. 22, 2014 (129-120)

Let’s just cut right to the fourth quarter. That’s when the Bulls erupt for a franchise-record 49 points to take the come-from-behind win. Ironically they miss their first three shots of the period. After that? Tom Thibodeau’s group goes 14-for-17 and also makes 16 free throws. Derrick Rose goes 6-for-6 for 15 points in the stanza. Who said Thibs’ offenses don’t score?

4. Mar. 20, 2015 (108-92)

The two teams enter this late-season matchup just one-half game separating them. But the Bulls make a statement, taking the lead late in the first quarter and holding it the rest of the way. Rookie Nikola Mirotic continues to put a bow on his remarkable month of March, scoring 29 points on 11-for-21 shooting and grabbing 11 rebounds. He even blocks a career-high four shots in the win.

5. Mar. 25, 2015 (116-103)

The Bulls continued pulling away in the East standings less than a week later. Mirotic is solid off the bench, scoring 15 points, but it’s reserve Tony Snell who makes the most noise. He erupts for 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting in just 18 minutes, including nine points in a fourth quarter that sees the Bulls outscore the Raptors 39-21 to secure the win.

6. Dec. 28, 2015 (104-97)

The Bulls’ bench continues to star against the Raptors. This time Snell, Bobby Portis and Aaron Brooks combine for 51 of the Bulls’ 104 points. The five starters score 53 points. The trio of Snell/Portis/Brooks shoots 20 for-37 from the field, outscoring the Raptors’ reserves, 51-27.

7. Jan. 3, 2016 (115-113)

Jimmy Butler struggles in the first half, scoring just two points. But the second half is a different story, to say the very, very, very least. Butler scores a franchise-record 40 points after halftime, leading the Bulls all the way back after they trailed by as many as 14 midway through the third quarter. When you play for the Bulls and accomplish a scoring feat that Michael Jordan never did, that’s says something.

8. Feb. 19, 2016 (116-106)

Doug McDermott can't match Butler’s heroics, but he puts together a career night nonetheless. The sharpshooter goes off for 30 points, making 13 of 17 from the field in 31 minutes. Fourteen of those points came in the fourth quarter, his last coming on a 3-pointer after the Raptors had cut the deficit to just three.

9. Mar. 14, 2016 (109-107)

Dwane Casey begins having nightmares of Doug McDermott (probably). That’s because the Creighton legend goes off once again, scoring 29 points on 9-for-11 shooting and somehow getting to the free throw line eight times. The Bulls nearly collapse (just like their first win in the streak), but DeMar DeRozan is blocked by Jimmy Butler in the closing seconds (just like their first loss of the streak).

10. Jan. 7, 2017 (123-118)

Jimmy Butler lives at the free throw line in the only overtime game of the streak. The Bulls, like plenty of these games, make a wild comeback in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Ratpors 33-21 to force the extra period. Butler plays hero with seven points in overtime, and Jerian Grant ices the game with a pair of free throws.

11. Feb. 14, 2017 (104-95)

The Raptors do not ask Doug McDermott to be their valentine. That’s because he once again goes off, scoring a team-high 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting. Jimmy Butler adds 19 (with 15 coming on free throws) and adds 12 assists and five steals in the wire-to-wire victory.

Jimmy, D-Rose, Embiid, LeBron, Lonzo: 10 most intriguing games on the Bulls' 2017-18 schedule

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USA TODAY

Jimmy, D-Rose, Embiid, LeBron, Lonzo: 10 most intriguing games on the Bulls' 2017-18 schedule

The Bulls had as busy an offseason as any team in the NBA, which means there will be plenty of headliner games on their 2017-18 schedule, which the league announced Monday.

Here are 10 that all fans should have circled on their calendars:

1. Feb. 9, vs. Minnesota: This may be one of the most anticipated games featuring non-contenders of the season. Draft night's blockbuster deal that sent Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick is just the tip of the iceberg. Tom Thibodeau is still at the helm, and Taj Gibson signed with Minnesota in July. On the other end, Dunn and LaVine (assuming he's ready to go by then) will get a chance at revenge on the team that traded them. Butler jokingly said he's going to try to score "like 5 points" against the Bulls, but our guess is he's especially up for this game. It's also the Bulls' only scheduled nationally televised game of the year. Long live the #TNTBulls.

2. Dec. 4 vs. Cleveland: It's always a big game when LeBron James comes to town for the first time, and for the last seven seasons that's meant the Eastern Conference champions arriving with him. But there's an added twist this year, as quite the familiar face will be joining King James in Chicago. Derrick Rose signed a one-year, veteran's minimum deal with the Cavs. It remains to be seen whether he or Kyrie Irving will start at the point when these teams meet, but it's sure to be awkward when Rose and LeBron run a fast break to perfection. This sure ain't 2015 anymore.

3. Dec. 18 vs. Philadelphia: We Trusted the Process, and now the Sixers look like legitimate contenders for a playoff spot in the East. And although Joel Embiid has been in Philly for two years and Ben Simmons for one, the Bulls didn't see either in their matchups last season. Expect that to change in December, when the Bulls get a dose of what a successsful rebuild looks like. With Embiid, Simmons, No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and a host of other young talent in the mix, the Bulls will get all they can handle with this group. They'll also get the blueprint for how they should proceed with their own rebuild.

4. Oct. 21 vs. San Antonio: It's the home opener for the Bulls, and in recent years that's meant good news. Winners in eight of their last nine openers at the UC, the Bulls will have their hands full when Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs come to town. Then again, the Bulls have managed to beat Gregg Popovich's group at the United Center in each of the last three seasons. They also had All-Star Jimmy Butler in those three matchups. The results may look different this time around, but recent records sure are on the Bulls' side.

5. Nov. 4 vs. New Orleans: It's always fun when hometown superstar Anthony Davis returns to Chicago. Last year The Brow dominated at the United Center, going for 36 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks in 39 minutes. Davis is back, and he's bringing DeMarcus Cousins with him this time. He's also bringing free-agent acquisition Rajon Rondo, who spent last season with the Bulls. Rondo originally was in the Bulls' near-future plans before they entered a rebuild, and it should be plenty of fun to watch him play against the young players he mentored last year. The last impression Bulls fans have of him was his absurd Games 1 and 2 against the Celtics, so expect Rondo to get a rousing applause in his return.

6. Nov. 24 at Golden State: There's never a fun time to play the Warriors. But this matchup is going to be brutally difficult. The Bulls begin their 2017 season playing 11 of their first 17 games on the road, and it ends with a trip to the defending champs' home court. The Warriors have been prone to ugly losses against lesser teams, but this might look something like last year's game in Oakland did (no Jimmy Butler, no Dwyane Wade meant a 31-point loss). Still, it's always incredible to watch this Warriors offense work, so it's making the list.

7. Oct. 19 at Toronto: So the Bulls no longer have their ridiculous winning streak against the Raptors that had spanned 11 games and four seasons. But this is the team's season opener, marking the official start of the rebuild in a place where they've had success in the past. It's unlikely Zach LaVine will be ready, but the Bulls will get to unwrap new toys in Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen and watch the development of guys like Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and others. From the Warriors to the Hawks to the Cavs to the Bulls, a season opener is a season opener. This one will be fun.

8. Nov. 21 at Los Angeles Lakers: You'll be hearing plenty about this, but Lonzo Ball is going to be must-see all year. He's the most exciting rookie point guard we've seen in quite some time, and the Lakers seem to be building something serious around him. Like Philadelphia, the Bulls can learn something from LA's rebuild that has seen them add players like Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Ivica Zubac and Kyle Kuzma. This game will be a solid test for the young Bulls, especially if they're still without Zach LaVine. But all eyes will be on Lonzo. 

9. Jan. 8 vs. Houston: There's a new superteam in town, and they're bringing their act to the Windy City right after the calendar flips to 2018. Chris Paul and James Harden have teamed up to form what should be one of the most fun offenses in the league to watch. There's a shot Carmelo Anthony is part of this roster by then, adding more intrigue to the game. Assuming the new-look Rockets (they also added PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute) hav worked out all the kinks this far into the season, this one could get ugly.

10. Nov. 19 at Phoenix: We're tossing this one on the list for a few reasons. There's an outside chance Kyrie Irving is the starting point guard by this time. Also, a Jimmy Butler trade certainly could have gone down with the Suns this offseason. It's a little game of "what if" when watching players like Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender, who could have been part of a rebuild. Past that, CSN's digital department is #TeamSuns, so it's making the cut.

Tom Thibodeau enjoying having Jimmy Butler as a recruiter

Tom Thibodeau enjoying having Jimmy Butler as a recruiter

LAS VEGAS — Wearing a Cheshire grin while making his way through the Cox Pavilion was one Tom Thibodeau, still wearing the newlywed glow of a man who pulled off quite the heist.

The Timberwolves coach and president acquired the player he longed for since taking the top post in Minneapolis in Jimmy Butler on draft night and while it doesn’t guarantee his team a playoff spot, it definitely increased its chances for next season.

And it probably gave him a little satisfaction to send his former franchise into a rebuild that could take years to get out of. Still, he insists it was a “good deal for both teams”.

“I think, here’s the thing. Having been there, they had a great run and you have to make a decision, where you are with your window. You know they had been thinking about it (trading Butler),” Thibodeau said. “Both of our windows matched up, what they wanted to do and what we wanted to do. I think it was a good deal for both teams. They got quality players, we obviously got an elite player and thrilled to get Justin Patton also.”

In adding to a core that includes talented youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves agreed to terms with former Bull Taj Gibson in the opening days of free agency and Saturday evening, added free agent guard Jamal Crawford as a scorer off the bench.

The Timberwolves also acquired Jeff Teague to replace Ricky Rubio at point guard, giving them a bonafide starting lineup that should be interesting in the West. For a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004 and owns the longest streak of futility in the NBA, legitimacy has been added in the last two seasons with handing Thibodeau the keys to the franchise and now, acquiring the likes of a top-15 player in Butler.

It’s safe to say Butler was instrumental in the signings, necessary acquisitions in a stacked Western Conference. Butler was supportive of Gibson when Gibson was traded at the deadline from Chicago to Oklahoma City, telling him to “go get the bag (of money).”

Apparently, Butler did his part in making sure his new team brought another familiar face — albeit with a substantial bag of money.

“I think it’s critical. I think anytime you can add an elite player to your team most players are aware,” Thibodeau said. “When they’re looking around, when they become free agents, they’re going to look at the first part is obviously the financial part. And then the second part is going to be who are they playing with and how do they fit into the group?”

Butler’s relationship and recruiting of Dwyane Wade was instrumental in Wade’s signing last summer, but Thibodeau plans on using his players even more as time goes on. One could say the Bulls have been reticent in that department, not taking much input from players in personnel matters.

“And I think when you add in a guy like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, I think it makes it that more attractive,” Thibodeau said. “And of course Jimmy has relationships with a lot of guys in the league because of his experience in All-Star Games, with Team USA, so that all factors into it.”

Thibodeau’s fondness of Gibson was well-known, and he fawned over Gibson Saturday, calling him the most versatile defender in the NBA and more than anything, he’ll be an advocate for Thibodeau’s culture next season as the expectations will rise exponentially.

“I don’t think there’s a better defender switching to two’s (shooting guards), 3’s (small forwards), point guards, and his ability to finish,” Thibodeau said. “You have 3-point shooting (on the roster). Defensively we’re a better team. Next to Karl you have a big time multiple effort guy. I think that goes a long way to being a good defensive team. As they learned, multiple effort is necessary and required.”