Toronto Raptors

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

Monday night, 14,775 fans attended the Bulls' latest in a line of hard-fought defeats: a 93-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors. That's the smallest reported crowd at the United Center for a Bulls game since Dec. 16, 2004.

For stretches, though, it felt like a full house. 

"The UC was great tonight, the fans were awesome," Denzel Valentine said.

The starters carried the team, to start: Of the Bulls' 50 first-half points, 46 were scored by Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter. But it wasn't the usual suspects that pushed the Chicago faithful's decibel count to levels unheard of in the earlygoing of this season.

Thank Valentine and Daniel Gafford, in large part, for that. With the Bulls trailing 61-58 at the 4:45 mark of the third, Jim Boylen turned to a bench-dominated unit of Coby White, Valentine, Thad Young, Gafford and LaVine to spark his group. It was a potential tipping point in the game: The Raptors were in the midst of an 11-3 run and the Bulls' offense was fizzling. White, Valentine, Young and Gafford had four points between them upon entry.

With that move, the fates tilted towards the home side. For a time.

"It was great minutes from them," Satoransky said of Valentine and Gafford after the game. "I think [Denzel] is feeling more himself right now. And DG will always bring that energy. He's one of the most athletic guys I've ever seen, his energy... will always refresh our game."

It certainly did in this one. Gafford blocked three shots and notched 10 points over the game's final quarter-and-a-half. Valentine scored all 13 of his points for the night after that juncture in the third, shooting 5-for-9 from the floor and 3-for-7 from 3-point range. The Bulls finished the night 12-for-46 from 3-point land.

"Just energy," Valentine said, of what that bench unit brought. "We started playing defense. It started on the defensive end, started in transition, getting rebounds. Played with a little bit more life. Playing with each other too. We were moving the ball together."

"We go in, we produce with the minutes that we get," Gafford said. And on what the fans gave back: "There was definitely energy. I was blocking shots, Denzel was knocking down shots, we were getting stops on defense. We were doing everything we needed to do to win the game, and the crowd helped us do that."

Of course, they didn't do it alone. In spite of not scoring, White played a solid defensive game and finished the night with eight rebounds and five assists. Young and Kris Dunn each hit crucial 3-pointers in the third. But watching Valentine and Gafford ignite the home crowd made it even more surreal that neither of them cracked the regular rotation until mid-to-late November.

"We got a bond," Gafford said. "He finds me when I'm open, and I find him when he's open... We just go out and play basketball."

That strategy helped the Bulls build an 85-77 lead with eight minutes left in the game, but the team's good fortunes faded fast from there. After an alley-oop from Valentine to Gafford gave them their 84th and 85th points of the night, the Bulls didn't score for the next five-and-a-half minutes of game action. The Raptors surged down the stretch. The Bulls scrapped, but ultimately faltered when it mattered most.

Both Gafford and Valentine found themselves in the Bulls' closing lineup — Valentine by way of the hot-hand, Gafford in Carter's stead after he fouled out with just under four minutes remaining. A Valentine transition layup, Markkanen 3-pointer and Gafford layup represented the Bulls' only points of the final eight minutes.

"We gotta learn how to put it away. If we can't at the end of the third quarter, we gotta put it away at the beginning of the fourth," Gafford said. "We just gotta learn how to put it away, seal the deal." 

But, as a team, they didn't. And thus, the bottom line doesn't change. The Bulls won a(nother) moral victory or two tonight, but when the final points were tallied, they were on the short end. That's the only stat that matters, especially to those 14,775 that stood behind their team, in person, tonight.

"It’s disappointing when we don’t win games. It’s disappointing when we don’t win home games," Boylen, who has presided over only 10 home victories in his tenure, said. "Nobody is running from that."

"No excuses, nobody cares, we just gotta come out and play hard and learn from our mistakes," Valentine said. "It's tough, because we lose the last three and we were up in the fourth [quarter], I think, in all of those games. So it's tough. But hopefully at some point we'll figure it out."

Gafford and Valentine provided a jolt, but because of the result, they're only would-be heroes — their combined performance amounts to nothing more than an all-too-familiar silver lining. In some ways, that stings even more.

"That's why this game is so frustrating," Satoransky said. "Because I know we were there. Fans were engaged and I think we played very well, and we missed a lot of shots. You know, that always hurts."

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Five observations: Bulls liven the United Center, but fall short to Toronto Raptors

Five observations: Bulls liven the United Center, but fall short to Toronto Raptors

The Bulls came up just short of a signature win, falling 93-92 to the Toronto Raptors. Observations from another loss flush with silver linings, but a loss all the same:

Bricks were laid

Seriously. You could have built a house of ’em. Both of these groups were on the second night of back-to-backs tonight, and it showed. 

At halftime, the two teams had combined to shoot 12-for-48 from 3-point range, a lot of which were, frankly, pretty open looks. Then, they missed their first eight combined attempts of the third quarter. The Bulls finished the night 12-for-46 from deep, the Raptors 7-for-29. Bleh.

The Bulls stayed in the game early — they led 51-49 at the half — by hunting good paint looks and getting to the foul line (and, of course, by way of Toronto’s poor shooting). They led the points-in-the-paint battle 16-8 at the end of the first quarter but tallied only 46 overall. Part of that had to do with the shooting picking up for a bit and another pesky bout of offensive stagnation.

The starters carried the offense for a while

At one point in the third quarter, Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter had 54 of the Bulls’ 58 points. It was that type of game, at least for a while. 

In the first half, Zach LaVine appeared to be on track for a bounce-back performance. He had 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and — crucially — no turnovers at the break. He didn’t score again.

Satoransky ran out to eight points and seven assists, and Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter combined for 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting in the first two periods. 

The bench was a non-factor until the third quarter. After closing the entire fourth quarter and overtime against Miami, Coby White shot 0-for-7 and had three turnovers, though he also logged five assists and eight rebounds. He didn’t play down the stretch. 

The bench came alive

The bench came alive for a spurt in the third quarter, behind four quick points from Daniel Gafford and 3-pointers from Thad Young and Denzel Valentine (and Kris Dunn, but he’s technically a starter). That carried over into the fourth quarter when the Bulls jumped out to a 14-6 run in the period’s first five-and-a-half minutes with a lineup of Satoransky, White, Valentine, Young, and Gafford on the floor. 

Valentine, especially, was phenomenal — he finished the night with 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting. The United Center was legitimately loud a few times early in the fourth. Most of those instances involved him (or Gafford blocks).

Bulls faded down the stretch again

Boylen rode that aforementioned lineup until about midway through the fourth, when he started filtering the starters back in (first LaVine for Coby White, then Carter for Gafford). After Wendell Carter fouled out with 3:52 remaining, Satoransky, LaVine, Valentine, Markkanen and Gafford closed the game.

It wasn’t always pretty, and again, they came up just short. At one point, the Bulls didn’t score for five-and-a-half minutes, allowing an 85-77 lead to become an 86-85 deficit with just under three minutes remaining. A Valentine transition layup, Markkanen 3-pointer and Gafford layup reignited the crowd for a moment. But the game ended on a failed LaVine iso possession.

Another solid defensive performance

It’s hard to tell how much of the Raptors’ poor offensive night was a result of there being a lid on the basket versus the Bulls executing defensively. But Boylen and co. will take holding one of the league’s best offenses to 92 points and 37.8% shooting.

For the second night in a row, the Bulls also did a nice job corralling a premier offensive talent. Pascal Siakam started strong with 13 first-quarter points, then finished the game with 22 on 7-for-18 shooting (he was at 5-for-10 after the first). 

Save for a few lapses in their transition defense, the Bulls played with tremendous intensity all night long. Fifteen forced turnovers is low for this steal-happy group, but many came at opportune times. Overall, a defensive performance worth building on.

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NBA power rankings: Antetokounmpo and Bucks keep up 14-game win streak

USA Today

NBA power rankings: Antetokounmpo and Bucks keep up 14-game win streak

With the NBA season hitting the quarter pole, it’s a good time to check in on how the MVP race is shaping up.

After blowing a two games to none lead against Toronto in last spring’s Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo vowed to come back better than ever this season, and he’s done exactly that, improving his averages in points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage.

The one knock on Antetokounmpo had been his lack of a consistent outside shot, and while he’s still only shooting 31.6% from beyond the arc, he’s made at least three shots from long distance in three of his last seven games.

The Bucks are currently riding a 14 game winning streak after blowing out a very good Clippers’ team at Fiserv Forum last Friday. Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers even joked about the result, saying, “It was Giannis’ 25th birthday, and we searched all over the city to find a gift, and we couldn’t find one, so we gave him this one. That’s all I can come up with because we were awful.”

Antetokounmpo still has to prove he can get the Bucks to the Finals, but through the first 23 games, he’s clearly the favorite to win his 2nd straight MVP award.

LeBron James’ Lakers are actually a half game ahead of the Bucks for the NBA’s best record at the start of the new week. James leads the NBA in assists, something that hasn’t been done by a player who doesn’t play the guard position since Wilt Chamberlain. James would rank 2nd on my MVP rankings at the quarter pole.

I wrote about Luka Doncic in last week’s power rankings, and after averaging a triple double in November and leading the Mavericks to an unexpected strong start in the West, Luka would be number three, followed by NBA scoring leader James Harden and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam.

Now on to this week’s rankings. Check them out here.