Toronto Raptors

Observations: Dunn-LaVine chemistry, bad Bulls, good Raps

Observations: Dunn-LaVine chemistry, bad Bulls, good Raps

Mismatched pieces: Kris Dunn made his return after a near-month absence from a concussion he suffered against Golden State, and immediately you could see the small dividends.

On the first possession, he pulled up for a midrange jumper, showing no ill effects from the injury. He also drove to the basket and played relatively aggressive, which is a hallmark to his effectiveness.

He didn’t stand out statistically but the Bulls’ pace was evident in his 20 minutes, as he totaled eight points and three assists.

What will be critical over the final 25 games after the All-Star break is the on-floor chemistry between Dunn and Zach LaVine.

LaVine was coming off one of his best stretches as a pro, averaging 25.3 points and six rebounds over his last four games. The production regressed a bit, as the Raptors showed why they’re one of the top 10 teams on both ends of the floor—particularly defensively as the driving lanes weren’t plentiful aside from a couple athletic takes to the rim.

He only finished with seven points in 27 minutes, but 14 games into his season, anomalies are expected.

If this game were closer, one of the questions would be around how the Bulls would navigate late-game execution between Dunn and LaVine. LaVine was aggressive late in the wins against the Timberwolves and Magic, while Fred Hoiberg termed Dunn the Bulls’ “closer” when they went on their remarkable run after starting 3-20.

Hoiiberg didn’t want to truly entertain the “who’s the man” question before the game because…well, these two have only played four games together this season.

Last year there wasn’t much time to play together because Dunn didn’t play much and LaVine was hurt by midseason.

“You definitely have to find the chemistry out there,” Dunn said. “When you find the chemistry and the right groove and everybody knows each other, things are a lot easier. It’s only been four games. It’ll take time. Hopefully we get it right away in the second half.”

If there’s an issue of actual substance for the last third of the season, it’s probably not figuring out the Cam Payne conundrum that will get people’s juices going headed into 2018-19, it’ll be figuring out how the backcourt of the future performs together.

“Kris has been good. I have chemistry with him from our days in Minnesota,” LaVine said. “For all of us getting to know each other, still. Me, him, Lauri, getting to know each other and meshing. We weren’t as competitive as we should’ve been, and aggressive. We gotta get better with that.”

Speaking of backcourts: The backcourt of the present, Toronto’s All-Star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, didn’t have to play like their All-Star selves for the Raptors to cruise to an easy win.

Lowry has continued his all-around play with 20 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, taking just 10 shots in his 27 minutes while hitting four triples. DeRozan, who had a field day against the Bulls in his earlier visit to the United Center with 35 points, only went 3-for-11 in 28 minutes for seven points and eight assists.

But that’s the beauty of these Raptors, who’ve continued to build around their backcourt and evolved into one of the league’s most versatile and deepest teams as they have the Eastern Conference’s best record at 41-16.

Their bench combined for 56 points and hammered the Bulls in the paint for 60 points, shooting 52 percent from the field and taking a 26-point lead. They have length and athleticism along with youth and energy—in most other years, they could be a real threat to qualify for the NBA Finals.

Too bad the Cleveland Cavaliers exist and more specifically, LeBron James. The Cavs beefed up at the deadline and now look like the favorites to get back to the Finals—and they’ll likely have to get through the Raptors to get there.

“Dwane Casey has done an unbelievable job with that team,” Hoiberg said. “Absolutely phenomenal. And that team is playing with so much confidence and swagger.”

Effort: It’s been awhile since the Bulls’ effort could truly come into question. Their execution, talent level and decision-making has been what held them back in most of their losses in the last month or so.

With 48 minutes between them and a much-needed All-Star break, the Bulls slept through their alarm clock and kept hitting the snooze button.

After taking a six-point lead in the first quarter, they were outscored by 30 in the last three.

“It reminded me of an earlier stretch in the season when adversity hit us and we shut down, and that can’t happen,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve got to keep playing, we’ve got to keep battling, which we’ve done a very good job of for the most part this season.”

Hoiberg even picked up his second technical of the season, being so frustrated with the officiating and his team’s energy level. Shooting just four of 24 from three tends to gray Hoiberg’s hair a little quicker than most nights.

LaVine said, “we sucked”, which put Hoiberg’s sentiments much more succinctly.

“I think it got the best of us,” Dunn said. “Shots just weren’t falling and when it doesn’t fall then adversity hits and when it does, we just got to be able to fight through it. They were comfortable the whole game.

Leading: Dunn’s words sounded just like Hoiberg’s, and if you take the position that the leader of the team and coach need to be on the same accord, it shouldn’t be surprising Dunn plans to take a more vocal role for the final 25 games.

He purposely didn’t want to assert himself so strongly to start the year, he said. It could’ve been in part because his early play wouldn’t have garnered the currency to be a leader (remember the late behind-the-back pass in Phoenix), but since early December, he’s been the catalyst.

“I stepped back because we had so many veterans and other players to be the leaders. I just went out there to do it with action,” Dunn said.

In these 11 games he’s been out, Dunn’s presence and qualities haven’t been duplicated. They’ve played hard but have missed his passion and confidence that borders on arrogance (remember the yelling to the crowd as he closed a win against the Utah Jazz in December), but it’s been necessary.

Averaging 15 points, eight assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals in his last 21 games gives him the type of currency in the locker room to lead. He deferred to Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday and Quincy Pondexter.

Clearly it’s been part of a master plan, a plan one can say he executed to near-perfection.

“Now I want to start trying to be a vocal leader, carrying to the second half and the summer and next season, starting the year quicker.”

Already looking to next year is probably music to most fans’ ears.

But there’s 100 quarters left to play.

The countdown is on.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls host Raptors

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Bulls host Raptors

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Bulls take on the Toronto Raptors tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. The best team in the East. No, it's not LeBron James' revamped Cavaliers. No, MVP candidate Kyrie Irving and the Celtics have struggled of late and moved to No. 2 in the East. Instead, it's DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and the Raptors who sit atop the Eastern Conference as we near the All-Star Break. They look as good as ever during their run of success under Dwane Casey, and the Bulls will really have their work cut out for them as long as the Raps aren't coasting toward the break.

2. Lauri's ugly 3 run: Lauri Markkanen has put together one of the most impressive rookie 3-point shooting years in league history, that much is true. But over the last nine games he has been downright bad from distance. He's shooting 23 percent on more than 5 attempts a game. He's obviously got the green light, and it's on him to work through the struggles, but lately it's been more bad than good from Lauri Legend.

3. Kris Dunn back? Kris Dunn has been listed as probable, and it's likely we'll at least see him on the floor for a little bit. And as we all know, that's a good thing for this Bulls offense who has really struggled since he went down at the end of the Golden State game.

Bobby Portis returns to Bulls with clean slate

Bobby Portis returns to Bulls with clean slate

Bobby Portis’ eight-game suspension is over and the assimilation process back into the land of the living will begin Tuesday night in Toronto.

While Nikola Mirotic continues to recover from the damage Portis’ punch caused, Portis will make his season debut and seemingly everybody is curious as to what type of player will step on the floor at the Air Canada Centre.

He’s been practicing with the team through his suspension and considering his incident with Mirotic was an act of aggression, it’s understandable to wonder if he’ll try to curtail that attribute when he comes off the bench.

“He’s been the same player as far his energy is concerned,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Every time he steps on the floor and need a jolt of energy, he can provide that for us. He needs to continue to do those little things that have made him successful when he’s been on the floor his first couple years in the league.”

Hoiberg intimated Portis has a clean slate and the situation won’t be held against him in terms of playing time. Hoiberg was asked if he had mixed emotions personally to have Portis back while Mirotic is still weeks away from stepping on the floor—if he even wants to do so in a Bulls uniform.

“Again guys, this is something that unfortunately, it happened. There was an altercation, and Bobby served the eight-game suspension,” Hoiberg said. “It was something that was thought a lot about as far as what the punishment would be in collaboration with the league. They felt that this was the right punishment. He sat out his games and he was able to stay active and practice with us. Now we’ll put him back on the floor. And again, we welcome him back.”

Portis hasn’t developed much of an identity in terms of production in his first two years but energy is the first thing that would’ve come to mind when Portis’ name was brought up—before his incident with Mirotic days before the season tipped off.

He’ll back up Lauri Markkanen at power forward and perhaps play alongside Markkanen at center for stretches, depending on the lineups the Raptors deploy.

[MORE: With Jahlil Okafor on trading block, is a Chicago homecoming imminent?

The circumstances, the wait and Portis’ general fervor for the game means he’ll probably be a bag of nerves before checking in. Since the incident and subsequent suspension, he’s had to leave the arena two hours before gametime so it’s been quite awhile since Portis has been around a meaningful basketball game.

“That’s human nature coming back from an eight-game layoff, suspension,” Hoiberg said. “I’m sure there will be some nerves. There are always nerves associated with the first game of the season. The biggest way to combat that is to go play with energy and do the things that have made him a successful player.

“Keep it simple. Focus on defending and rebounding. Don’t try to do too much early in his return. I’m sure he’ll be going 100 MPH his first time out there. But just give us great energy.”

They’ll need it from somewhere, in part due to David Nwaba’s right ankle injury keeping him out two-to-four weeks, according to Hoiberg. Portis was long mentioned as a top worker during the summer, spending a lot of time in Chicago in preparation for the season.

Tuesday will be step one in the process of having his name associated with something else besides punching a teammate.

“I’m definitely anxious to see what he has to bring,” Robin Lopez said. “I know he’s been putting in a lot of work, he put in a lot of work this offseason. I know there’s been some interesting situations going on, but I think we’re all excited to have him back on the court.”