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.”
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.