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Raptors 85, Bulls 79 – Box

Ha.  This is a crazy team to watch.  I’m not used to seeing the Raptors of yesteryear show much of a backbone when up against it, so to see them pull off tight road wins against quality opposition reminds me why I even follow sport.  We’ve all wanted to support this sort of team, one that gives it a go every time no matter who the opposition and what the result.  We’ve all wanted to play the underdog pulling off the upset.  We’ve all wanted to be the road team that silences the home crowd.  We’ve all wanted US recognition of our efforts on Sporscenter. We’ve all wanted the Raptors to be seen in a positive light.  We’ve all wanted to win.  So why can’t we just appreciate getting what we all wanted?

“When you have teams that are willing to share the ball, who want to focus on defence and focus on getting stops rather than outscoring their opponent you are going to have a great and successful team. With this team they have great leadership with Amir and Kyle and all the pieces fall into place after that.”

Patrick Patterson

The Bulls aren’t the same without Derrick Rose but after their four-game losing streak they had won three out of four heading into last night’s home-date with the Raptors, albeit on a back-to-back.  There, I’ve admitted for #TankNation that the Bulls had some adversity to overcome, which should give them free reign on discounting the win.   For me, though, this was yet another game where a team that could’ve folded stepped up to win against the odds, and that’s really all there is to it.

[You can now grade the players in the Reaction Post from last night]

The Raptors once again neutralized a key strength of the opponent to start the contest, in this case it was rebounding as they were even with the Bulls at 11.  In the same quarter they excelled in an area where you wouldn’t expect them to against Chicago, which is points in the paint (8-2).  This was enough to overcome their 35% shooting in the frame and perch them to a five point lead.   DeMar DeRozan was going up against Jimmy Butler, a solid defensive player, and DeRozan’s approach was all wrong – instead of being the decoy and creating for his team mates, he went straight at Butler who did well to force DeRozan into low-percentage looks.  DeRozan’s driving angles were off all night and he never looked to position himself to make a decent pass.   That lone assist he has in close to 36 minutes of play sounds about right.

jonas-valanciunas

The early bench play offset DeRozan as the Raptors got a 10-5 bench kick in the first quarter.  Jonas Valanciunas was superb in his positioning against Joakim Noah, limiting Noah to low-impact rebounds (e.g., no thunderous put-back jams), and forcing him away from the paint where he can influence incoming drives.  The Raptors didn’t involve Valanciunas consistently enough throughout the game and he was getting the short end of the stick from the officials all night, neither of which distracted him from his defensive duties.  And to boot, when he did get the ball in the block he executed some swift moves to score.

My only complaint about Valanciunas is that he’s got to take the jumper on offer.  It’s the perfect way to open up his quick drive which he finishes with a stretch leap.  He’s able to make that jumper and it’s only a matter of consistency; if he has to take a page out of someone’s book just look at Amir Johnson.  The latter’s worked on that shot to the point where the defense comes out at him (not at 23-feet, more like 14-17) and he’s able to take a step in and pass which is enough to get things rolling.  Speaking of Johnson, he didn’t have a statistically awesome game which we’re used to seeing, but did bother Boozer with his length in the post and forced that jumper to be a little higher than Boozer was comfortable with.

The second quarter was all about the Bulls’ bench, specifically D.J Augustin and Taj Gibson.  Augustin, no doubt motivated a little by the waiver, went at the slower Greivis Vasquez and even at Kyle Lowry with good effect.  The hesitation was working and he connected well with Taj Gibson, a guy who I think is quite underrated.  Gibson posed some matchup issues against Tyler Hansbrough as well, who despite getting involved heavily in the paint in the second quarter, was shown the bench on account of the defensive mismatch against Gibson.  Basically, Hansbrough couldn’t keep up with Gibson’s length and movement, and that’s been the case since he was with the Pacers.

The Bulls shot 57% in the second quarter and the Raptors gave them a helpful assist by only netting two of their own in the quarter.  There was some static play in the second, especially with John Salmons handing the ball, and the Bulls bench outscored the Raptors’ 20-5 to take a six-point lead into halftime.  This could’ve been a lot worse if it weren’t for two Kyle Lowry threes which he mostly cooked out of nothing.  With DeRozan struggling the Raptors needed someone to provide a punch against the Bulls’ bench, and in this quarter it didn’t come from team-oriented play but some great shot-making by Lowry.

The Bulls extended the lead to ten in the third but the Raptors kept hitting back, a Lowry three here, a steal followed by a Ross break, an alley-oop, all anchored by some consistent defense, especially whenever the Bulls got the ball to their big men in foul/scoring positions.  That principle of verticality thing is working wonders for Johnson and Valanciunas, who both managed to contest without fouling consistently in this game.  It also helped that Dwane Casey burned a great timeout at 5:43 of the third when the lead had gotten to nine.  The 6-2 spurt that followed was critical, especially as it resulted in FTs for Amir Johnson and the Bulls going into the penalty.  The Bulls lead was a manageable five entering the fourth which is a lot better than 12 or 13 which it was on course for midway through the third.

“Honestly, those guys who started the fourth quarter, I believe it was DeMar, John, Greivis, Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson, those guys won that game for us”

– Kyle Lowry

I thought Tom Thibodeau made a glaring error to start the fourth.  When he saw Vasquez leading the Raptors charge in the fourth he should’ve brought in Augustin immediately, not because Vasquez was a threat that needed stopping, but because Augustin had done so well in the second quarter with his herky-jerky play.  Instead, Vasquez took the game over and in combination with Jonas Valanciunas, helped himself to seven points and two assists. A pull-up three, a floater in the lane, a short jumper behind a screen, and some excellent tight-quarter passing sparked the offense like it hadn’t been sparked all night.  The highlight came when on one play where he attracted a double-team against Hinrich (which shocked the Bulls guard) and the ball rotated for a clean look for Salmons.

Patrick Patterson had two key scores in the first half of the fourth quarter: a jumper in a tightly defended possession, and some smooth finishing underneath, the latter helped by Vasquez.  Patterson’s mid-range shot-making has been something the Raptors hadn’t had since Chris Bosh – a big who can confidently step out of the paint and provide an outlet for wings to relieve pressure.  He keeps finding himself with the ball late in the shot-clock and has the wits and composure to know what to do with the ball, and to top it off he doesn’t shirk his defensive responsibilities which his ilk tend to usually do.  By the time Vasquez had done his damage the Raptors had a 12-point lead and the Bulls were reeling.  They had missed their chance to take advantage of Vasquez’s defense and instead had settled for Luol Deng and Mike Dunleavy contested jumpers in this critical stage of the evening.  The 3-2 zone that Casey used in the quarter also wreaked havoc on the Bulls as they were entirely unprepared on how to deal with it.  Suffice to say that on this night Casey won the battle with Thibodeau.

Lowry didn’t replace Vasquez till 3:41 of the fourth, at which point a lineup of Lowry-DeRozan-Salmons-Johnson-Valanciunas saw the game through.  There were some nervy moments with Salmons turning it over and missing two FTs, which allowed the Bulls to have possession only down four, but Casey stuck with Salmons over Ross for defensive reasons, and it proved to be a wise choice as the Bulls continued to remain on the perimeter.  When they did come inside the Raptors’ ability to defend without fouling underneath the rim was supreme.  The Bulls sheer aggressiveness managed to get them four offensive rebounds but only had two second-chance points all fourth quarter.

A gritty, hard-fought, comeback win in Chicago on New Years Eve.  It feels good.

I don’t expect much from the Indiana game tonight. The Pacers walloped Cleveland at home last night whereas the Raptors had to gruel one out on the road. The Pacers have won five straight but then again, this Raptors team loves to surprise.