For the first time since the 1996-97 season, the Chicago Bulls have started a season 4-0.
While the fourth victory, 111-108 over the Toronto Raptors Monday night, verged on the precipice of an epic collapse, the Bulls found a way to hang on and pass their biggest test of the young season so far.
Here are 10 observations:
1. The Raptors faithful offered a warm welcome to DeMar DeRozan in his third career Toronto visit as an opposing player. DeRozan grew into the face of the franchise — and in some ways, basketball in Canada — in the first nine seasons of his career before headlining the Kawhi Leonard trade in 2018.
DeRozan got off to a nice start, scoring 11 points and two 3-pointers in the first quarter to buoy a Bulls team that looked stuck in mud early. Then, when things got tight late in the fourth, he put the team on his back again with a series of back-breaking midrange jumpers — three, to be exact — plus two free throws to help seal the victory. The Bulls were a bit of a mess offensively down the stretch, but DeRozan was a stabilizing force.
He finished with a game-high 26 points (11 in the fourth) and shot a perfect 10-for-10 from the charity stripe, closing out his former team in his old home arena in the process. Quite a night.
2. This is a game the 2020-21 Bulls likely lose. After sprinting out to a 20-point third quarter lead, the Raptors dialed up the ball pressure to open the fourth, coaxed the Bulls into some haphazard possessions, and drew to within 97-95 on the heels of a 13-2 run with five minutes to play. The Bulls punched back to go up eight, but inexplicable turnovers by Zach LaVine, Nikola Vučević and Lonzo Ball allowed the Raptors to get back within two points in the final minute. A missed Vučević free throw (the team’s first after starting the night 21-for-22) with 9.7 seconds to go afforded Fred VanVleet a chance to tie on the game’s final possession, but his stepback 3-point attempt (a clean look after he shook Vučević on a switch) sailed long.
So, no, Billy Donovan won’t be satisfied with seven fourth-quarter turnovers (three from Ball), minus-nine fourth-quarter margin, or the havoc the Raptors’ aggressive play wreaked on their offense. But a win is a win, and to do it against a solid team that presented plenty of adversity is a good thing.
3. Through three quarters, the Bulls had just five turnovers and were piecing together a comprehensive, two-way performance, flush with sharp ball movement, hot shooting and disruptive defense. The fourth quarter splashes a bit of cold water on that, but teaching moments are easier to unpack after a win than a loss.
4. The Bulls’ customary defensive peskiness, at least, was a consistent presence. They logged double-digit steals for the second game in a row, swiping 11, and scored 27 points off of 21 Raptors turnovers. Alex Caruso had two pivotal interceptions in the final minutes, and Lonzo Ball was again a force at that end. For the night, he had two steals and a block, and in one incredible fourth-quarter sequence, he forced a wild OG Anunoby miss as the shot clock expired, dished an assist to Alize Johnson on the other end, then stripped Fred VanVleet for a turnover.
5. Donovan once again closed with Caruso on the floor alongside LaVine, DeRozan, Ball and Vučević. Patrick Williams had a few nice defensive plays in the third quarter, but pulled down zero rebounds from the starting power forward spot. As a team, the Bulls were outworked 58-32 on the glass, a reminder of their undersized nature.
6. For the third game in a row, Zach LaVine failed to score in the first quarter. Any night like that over the course of the last three seasons would have utterly doomed the Bulls. This season, they’re undefeated.
Plus, LaVine ignited in the third quarter, scoring 13 in the period as the Bulls stretched their advantage. LaVine’s first 3-pointer of the evening placed him fourth on the Bulls’ franchise leaderboard for makes with 556, passing Michael Jordan’s 555.
7. Vučević was listed as questionable for much of the day with an undisclosed illness that kept him out of the morning shootaround. He played, and fared well enough, tallying 17 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals in 34 minutes. But he still appears to be finding his footing offensively. Vučević got 10 of his 17 points on this one from the midrange, but shot 1-for-3 in the restricted area and 0-for-2 from 3-point range. For the season, he is now shooting 9-for-23 in the restricted area (39.1 percent) and 3-for-14 from behind the arc (21.4 percent).
8. Ball, meanwhile, shot 5-for-9 from 3 to lead the Bulls to a 12-for-27 (44.4 percent) night from deep. He is now shooting 13-for-30 from distance (43.3 percent) this year.
9. Though Donovan has done well to stagger LaVine and DeRozan with the second-stringers, bench offense is going to be hard to come by until Coby White returns. That made Troy Brown Jr.’s 11 points off the pine all the more encouraging. He buried a corner 3-pointer, tipped home a putback off an offensive rebound and had a couple nice drives and layups en route to that stat line.
10. Even though the Raptors played without Pascal Siakam, that felt like the Bulls’ first real test after stacking three wins against the Pistons and Pelicans. It was sloppy late. But they passed.
Because of that, the Bulls now stand as the last unbeaten team in the Eastern Conference. And, with a hat tip to Big Dave Watson, Zach LaVine is on his first four-game win streak in the NBA.
Next up: Home for the New York Knicks (and Joakim Noah night) on Thursday.