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Bulls observations: Play-in hopes live with win over Raptors

/ by Rob Schaefer
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The Bulls kept their play-in hopes alive with a 114-102 win over the ravaged Toronto Raptors Thursday night at the United Center.

Here are 12 observations:

1. The Raptors truly trotted out a skeleton squad, starting the game with eight active players -- and after Yuta Watanabe went down with an ankle injury, they played the second half with just seven. Toronto entered play with the league's seventh-best odds of winning the 2021 draft lottery -- two games "ahead" of the eighth-place Bulls -- and look determined to stay there. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby were all notably absent.

2. The Bulls, meanwhile, had something to play for. Their next loss, or Wizards win, would eliminate them from play-in contention -- a goal the Bulls are determined to chase until mathematically impossible.

3. Garrett Temple was the Bulls' first substitute of the night, spelling Thad Young (starting in place of Daniel Theis, who was sidelined with a hip contusion) and making the five on the floor Coby White, Zach LaVine, Temple, Patrick Williams and Nikola Vučević. That unit had only seen six minutes of run entering play, but Donovan turned to it then and at the beginning of the third quarter. It ended the night +4, but has some intrigue because of the way those five players blend defense and floor-spacing.

4. Vučević had one of his worst games as a Bull in Tuesday's loss to the Nets, scoring just 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting. After the contest, he bemoaned misfiring on some clean looks he normally expects to make. He course-corrected immediately in this one, notching 10 points and two assists in the first quarter and making two of three 3-point attempts. From there, some last-game demons reappeared -- Vučević shot 3-for-12 from quarters two to four -- but the Bulls held up, and he notched 16 rebounds and six assists.

 

5. After vying back and forth for the majority of the first quarter, the Bulls outscored the Raptors 27-12 in the first 5 minutes, 50 seconds of the second quarter to establish a commanding advantage. That stretch featured contributions from the always-energetic Javonte Green (eight second-quarter points), Lauri Markkanen (nine points, three 3s) and Coby White (seven points, four assists). Eventually, they won the period 36-20 and carried a 66-47 lead into the halftime break.

6. Green has made the most of his rotation opportunity, usurping Denzel Valentine on the wing with Troy Brown Jr. sidelined the last 13 games with a sprained ankle. He's a pest on and off the ball defensively, an explosive athlete around the basket, and tonight even made two of his three 3-point attempts -- the latter an area Billy Donovan has cited as needing improvement in the past. By game's end, he had his first double-digit scoring night in a Bulls uniform with 10 points.

7. Markkanen, meanwhile, had one of those nights where everything seemed to fall. He made his first four 3-point attempts, finishing the night 6-for-9 from deep, pulled down seven boards and even blocked a shot early in the third. Plus, eight of his 20 points -- and two of those triples -- came in the fourth quarter as the Bulls staved off a possible comeback. For all the woes of the second half of his season -- Markkanen's dip in production since moving to the bench has made it so he is now averaging career-lows virtually across the board -- this outing brought him to 39.6 percent from 3 this season, by far a career high.

8. The Bulls' role players stepped up on a night the expectation of a convincing win was fulfilled. Their reserves outscored Toronto's 38-20, an advantage made easier to create due to the fact Nick Nurse only brought three players off the bench in this one. The Bulls' All-Stars both played well when they had to -- LaVine, specifically, notched eight points apiece in the third and fourth quarters to end with a team-high 24 -- but didn't need to exert themselves to their typical degree.

9. The Raptors made things mildly interesting in the second, trimming an at one time 24-point deficit to 12 entering the fourth, and then to nine midway through the final frame. The Bulls committed a whopping eight turnovers in the third (four in the quarter's first four minutes), off which Toronto generated 10 points to crack the door open. But after the Raptors drew within 102-93 with just under six minutes to play, the Bulls won the stretch run 12-10, keyed along the way by big buckets from Markkanen, White and LaVine.

 

10. Like Vučević, White struggled against the Nets, but bounced back to tally 17 points, 10 assists (two turnovers) and five rebounds -- his third points-assists double-double of the season and first since Dec. 31. His play since returning to the starting lineup has been wholly encouraging, especially because it's continued with LaVine and Vučević back in the fold. After this one, White is averaging 18.4 points (44.5 percent shooting, 41 percent from deep) and 5.9 assists (2.3 turnovers) in his last 16 games, showing marked improvements in his consistency and decision-making. It's been an up-and-down second season for White, but he's appeared to find the balance between his on-ball playmaking and off-ball shot-hunting. And similar to his rookie year, he's ending on a strong note.

"Coby has helped Vooch and Vooch has really helped Coby," Donovan said after the game. "I think we’ve obviously posted the ball a lot more and I think for a young point guard like Coby, sometimes the faster the game gets going up and down the floor there’s a lot more quicker decisions you have to make in those situations. And certainly our pace and tempo is not what it was earlier in the year.

"He can allow Vooch to kind of create for him and Vooch either creates either a lot of jump shots or a lot of closeouts for him. I think the two things Coby does exceptionally well, he’s a really good three-point shooter; I also think when he gets into the teeth of the defense he can see and he can get other guys involved and other guys shots. I think those two guys have really helped each other quite a bit.”

11. The Bulls' ball and player movement was on point throughout. They cleared 30 assists for the 18th time this season, and placed six in double-figures. Thad Young followed up White's assist lead with seven dimes of his own.

12. Patrick Williams had nine points on 3-for-8 shooting when he left the game at the 6 minute, 10 second mark of the third quarter, but didn't return, ending his evening with 18 minutes played. Curious, because in his time on the court he looked a bit more assertive getting downhill, converting easy buckets on a pair of cuts, and got up three 3-point attempts, just the second time he's done the latter since March 31.

Still, Donovan noted after the game that Williams left a few too many jumpshot opportunities on the table.

"I didn’t think Patrick did anything terrible that he didn’t play," he said. "I thought there were some opportunities for Patrick -- I’m going to talk to him tomorrow -- I thought there were some shots he should have taken. He had a travel I think one time and bypassed. He made that one three out of the corner, but he’s going to have to take those shots when they are there for him. And he’s got to be able to understand we need him to shoot the ball."

 

Donovan also cited Markkanen's strong play for riding him more at the power forward spot in the second half.

Standings update: The Bulls move to within two games of the Wizards for the last play-in spot with two games left for each. The parameters stay the same: The Bulls need to win out, and have the Wizards lose out, to make the play-in.

Next up: At the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday. Oh -- and the Wizards face the Cavaliers Friday.

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