Well, we can’t say that one wasn’t entertaining, can we? The Raptors delivered a hell of a comeback effort in the second half against a team that was clearly more talented, particularly at the forward positions, thanks in particular to the play of a few key players off the bench (click here for the Quick Reaction and player grades) and a never-say-die effort that’s quickly becoming the hallmark of this team. Say what you will about Casey’s schemes and lineup choices (though, for the most part, I thought he did a decent job in that department down the stretch tonight), but his passion for the game is clearly contagious, and our guys are certainly buying in. It was great to see the crowd get into it too – not that the ACC doesn’t normally have a good crowd (I’d say it’s above average on most nights), but their energy clearly fed to the players in the fourth quarter and made the game a lot more exciting as we got down to the final minutes.

All of that being said, we did lose tonight – dropping our record to 14-25 on the season. I’m not ready to call the season just yet (I’m certainly not one of the eternal optimists that was predicting playoffs before the year began), but if we haven’t hit that tipping point yet for those still holding out, we’re damn close. After the 3 and 3 homestand, most pundits had pointed to this back to back with the Nets and Bobcats as the Raps’ last chance to pull their record close enough to a .500-ish level that they could conceivably contend for a playoff spot. Given our current record, we’d have to finish the season 24-19 just to finish at 38-44 for the year – an extremely tough proposition as the schedule turns once again (and that record isn’t even close to guaranteeing an 8-seed).

If this was the Raptors’ swan song as potential playoff contenders in the East, though, what a game it was. It sure felt like it had everything, tonight, from some highly questionable reffing calls to both teams having a player go Beast Mode in subsequent halves (Boozer, than Lowry), to our rookie second-rounder setting the unofficial Raptors drawn-charges record. We’ll get to everything in good time, but when I get asked “good news or bad news?” I always prefer the bad news first, so let’s start with why we lost the game.

It’s almost too obvious to mention, but in the early going, Carlos Boozer absolutely killed us in the post. As I’ve written on this site countless times, physical big men seem to be the antidote to our Amir/Ed combo on D, and last night was no different for the first 2+ quarters, as he seemed to turn into Karl Malone in his prime. Maybe Derrick Rose left the end of a bottle of “Michael’s Secret Stuff” in the Bulls’ locker room for him, but, from my vantage point, it seemed like the major issue for the Raptors’ interior D in the early going was positioning. Ed drew the matchup on Boozer when he was on the floor, leaving Amir on the taller Joakim Noah, but it seemed like he forgot to play defence before his mark had the ball for multiple stretches, leaving the larger Boozer free to roam the paint and set up wherever he pleased. Boozer had 17 points in the first quarter, 12 of which were on shots within 4 feet of the hoop, and regardless of a size disadvantage, that kind of access to the hoop is unacceptable. Luckily for the Raps, he fell into foul trouble late in the game, which both sent him to the bench and diminished his offensive role somewhat in crunch time, but early on, he was absolutely torching the Raptors like few players have this year.

Turnovers reared their ugly head again this game, though it was one key stretch of plays that really made my pull my hair out. After the bench worked their way back into the game from a 10 point deficit, the Raptor starters came back in to close out the half and promptly gave away the ball to the Bulls 4 times in under a minute, leading to their 8 point halftime deficit. The downside of a team that bases a lot of its ability to compete on emotion and effort is that they are far more viable to “pressing” – not the full court kind, but overexerting themselves and working too hard to make a play (basically, “pre-injury Lowry-itis”). This, coupled with the Bulls’ excellent perimeter defence, led to a string of ugly possessions in a row that really put the Raptors on their heels going into the tunnel – it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think of all the expletives Casey probably dropped on his charges during the break.

While we’re on the subject, though, the Bulls play REALLY good defence. As Matt Devlin said during the broadcast, this is the kind of team that Casey is hoping the Raptors can become – a group of overachieving wings who are greater than the sum of their parts surrounding a couple of intimidating presences in the middle. Noah and Boozer clearly were in the Raptor starters’ heads early – given our lack of floor spacing in our starting five (only Jose is a competent 3 point shooter) and the threat of the Bull bigs in the middle, the Raptor offence was too often left to the death-knell of mediocre teams: the mid-range jumper. This, coupled with the Bull wings’ ability to contest almost every shot that went up, both made life difficult for the Raptors on every possession, as well as made it even more impressive what the bench was able to do to keep the team in the game.

The starters in general struggled tonight (though the bigs were key late on the boards). After making a barrage of mid-range shots to start the game, DeMar, as he has too often done, decided to settle on this shot for the majority of the game, and, once they stopped falling, the Bulls essentially ignored him without consequence. Fields had another rough game on offense as well, though given his place on the team that’s a bit less surprising, and Jose was largely invisible, though you’d have to put some of the onus on that to Lowry’s incredible game.

The third quarter started much the way the second did, with Rip Hamilton joining Boozer on the “score whenever you want” train and the Raps seemingly struggling to get off any shots at all for a stretch. The lead stretched to 19 at one point, and even the most steadfast Raptors fan had to admit that at this point the game was probably over.

To paraphrase Twain, though: rumours of their death were greatly exaggerated.

The Raptors’ comeback in the second half was as unexpected for Raptor fans as it must have been familiar to them – it seems like we’ve been subjected countless times to the classic “game in hand… oh wait” performance, yet tonight, we were the team doing the coming back. Even if you were disappointed with the way the game started, it was hard not to get swept up in the emotion of watching the Raps swing the momentum, and the crowd, back in their favor.

I spoke about this in my Quick Reaction, but the three biggest reasons for the Raptor comeback are as follows: Lowry, Anderson, Acy. The entire Raptor bench outplayed the starters for the entire game, all finishing with a positive plus/minus while the first unit was in the negative, but it was the play of these three that turned the tide – to a smaller extent in the first half, but much more obviously in the second.

Tonight, we saw Lowry at his absolute finest. It seems like these last couple game have helped him find his happy medium between “hero-ball” Lowry and “passive Jose” Lowry, and he routinely made the right decision with the ball – driving when he had the proper switch, and passing when the situation warranted. I can’t find a video of his last-second wrap-around pass to Quincy Acy at the end of the 3rd, but it was a thing of beauty; he was the best player on the floor tonight when it counted, for either team, and no matter how often we see it, that’s a promising sign.

I don’t want to spend too much time breaking down Anderson’s game – the beauty of Alan Anderson is that it’s easy to know what to expect from him on the offensive end, and the only variable is whether or not his shot is falling. Tonight, it was, and so he was very effective as the primary scorer off the bench unit; the yang to Lowry’s yin. I do want to give a thumbs up to his deny defence on Luol Deng, which was excellent, but I’d also like to draw attention to his shot selection tonight. Here’s his chart:

For a guy known as a long-range bomber, that’s a pretty nice variety of shot selection, especially against a team who’s known for being an imposing presence inside. DeMar, are you listening? Here’s his chart, for those interested:

TAKE THE DAMN BALL TO THE HOOP, DEMAR. YOU’LL BE FAR HARDER TO GAME PLAN FOR.

I’d also like to extend another kudos to Quincy Acy, who was given his most significant minutes of the year and responded in a big way. Four charges in a game is almost unheard of (even though one was a pretty blatant flop), and I love the way he works hard to do the little things, like running the floor on the fast break or chasing down loose balls. Hopefully his effort will result in him getting fourth big minutes from Aaron Gray once Jonas comes back, as at this point, there’s no downside to giving him 10-15 minutes a game, unless we’re considerably outsized down low.

The Bulls went cold in the fourth quarter, which gave the Raptors plenty of chances to pull themselves back in the game, but some final kudos need to go to Ed Davis and Amir Johnson (and Lowry, for that matter) for their great effort on the offensive glass. The Raptors had 7 offensive boards in the quarter (the Bulls had 9 rebounds total), and those extra possessions were key in giving them any chance to take this game in the waning seconds.

I don’t have a ton to say about overtime. The game was a war of attrition at that point, with both teams battling foul trouble, and we had a wide-open Calderon 3 to win – essentially just less than a coin-flip, which is a pretty good position to be in against a team as strong as the Bulls. As for the reffing – it’s a tough job, I guess, but the Raptor homer in me is saying that Luol Deng CLEARLY pushed off on Fields and that Amir CLEARLY was fouled in the act. Those things happen, though, and it was partly the ticky-tack calls all over the floor that helped keep the Raptors in the game.

All said, the endgame of this one is becoming all to familiar to Raptors fans: a great effort squashed by a superior team and some questionable decision making. As a fan, I sure had a great time watching this game, but I can’t help but wonder what it’ll feel like to write a post-game when we finally pull one of these out. Dare to dream.