At one point on Saturday night, the Toronto Raptors led the Chicago Bulls by 19 points.
To that point, the Raptors were playing some of their best two-way ball of the season, and doing so against a quality team that’s been playing well themselves of late. The second quarter, in particular, included some of the best defense Toronto’s played all year, and they were some cold 3-point shooting from having really but things out of reach. The Bulls had little answer for DeMar DeRozan despite employing Jimmy Butler, with the Raptors using their pet sets to get preferable matchups off of switches. Kyle Lowry was living at the free-throw line and setting up teammates masterfully, too, and both Raptors centers were playing terrific, with Jonas Valanciunas dominating inside and Lucas Nogueira making his presence felt in a variety of ways. Starting dual centers had helped hold a tough Chicago frontcourt to a single offensive rebound in the first half.
Even with a lead edging toward 20, though, the Raptors’ control of the game seemed tenuous at best. These were the Bulls, after all, and the Bulls own the Raptors. Butler owns the Raptors. Doug McDermott owns the Raptors. With the margin swelling, Raptors Twitter began echoing each other with the type of anxious, tongue-in-cheek joking that is far more coping mechanism than actual humor. “Which Bull will go off in the second half? Haha.” “How big would the lead have to get to feel comfortable? Lol.” “Can’t wait for Isaiah Canaan to drop 30 LMAO.” This is what happens when one team wins nine in a row against another, slightly superior team, without much of a convincing reason as to why beyond randomness and intangibles. Streaks and team-over-team ownership doesn’t exist, but you’re only allowed to acknowledge that once whatever current streak exists dies.
This one, well, it won’t, apparently.
The writing probably should have been on the wall when the Raptors opened the second half with a silly over-and-back violation. If it wasn’t then, Butler sent a loud warning with a 15-point third quarter to cut the lead to 12. The Raptors were still getting to the line at will and the non-Butler Bulls were shooting horrifically from the floor, but Toronto had begun neglecting their own glass, the bench couldn’t provide it’s usual spark outside of Cory Joseph’s 3-point shooting (Terrence Ross had a cold night, including a few big misses in the clutch, and Norman Powell was ineffective in small minutes, though the Raptors played well when he was out there), and Chicago stumbled on the right amount of pressure on the Raptors’ ball-handlers to start forcing turnovers.
Perhaps the Raptors thought that late-third push was all that was coming, and that when they made it to the fourth, when they normally take off, their work was done. The Raptors were 19-0 when leading after three quarters to this point in the season, one of just two teams without a fourth-quarter collapse. And Butler couldn’t possibly continue going off at this rate. (Ron Howard voice: “He could.”) Whatever the case, the Raptors didn’t respond by counterpunching in the fourth.
“I don’t know if we thought it was over, or what,” head coach Dwane Casey said after the game.
Everything played out in all too familiar a way from there. Dwyane Wade used the attention he commands to get teammates involved. The Bulls continued to dominate the offensive glass, tipping long rebounds or taking advantage of some curious decisions on the part of Raptor rebounders. Casey couldn’t get comfortable with a lineup and, despite the trouble on the glass, went away from an assertive Valanciunas for perhaps too long (Valanciunas getting jobbed on a verticality call against Butler seemed to be the final blow). All the while, Butler kept cooking, running an endless array of 3-4 pick-and-pops with McDermott to get a switch onto the smaller Lowry or to free McDermott for a knock-down three or back-door cut. DeMarre Carroll, who was quite effective defensively in the first half, wasn’t at all up to the challenge in the second, and even when the Raptors got stops instead of fouling – Chicago only shot 41.9 percent in the fourth quarter and overtime – Chicago had a 50-50 chance of grabbing their own miss.
The lead was originally so large that even with all of this – the trouble on their glass, the poor pick-and-roll coverage, a stagnant offense late – the Raptors held their own fate in their hands. With the game tied and time running out in regulation, the Raptors corralled a Chicago miss and opted not to call a timeout. They didn’t seem decisive about it initially, but the logic makes sense: Calling a timeout gives Chicago a chance to set their defense and get their shakier defenders off the floor, and the Raptors could probably manufacture a good look on the fly.
And they did. DeRozan, who would finish with 36 points on 23 field-goal attempts in a strong scoring performance, missed a runner in transition.
And then they did again. The rebound found its way to Lowry, who flirted with a triple-double with a 27-9-12 line, and he missed a turnaround jumper in the paint that he hits with regularity.
I can’t imagine there’s a soul in the world who thought the Raptors had much of a chance in overtime. They played well, they built a massive lead, and then they let go, and there’s no getting it back from Butler, form the Bulls, and from this ridiculous power they seem to have over the Raptors, over several iterations of the team. Casey went back to his starters for overtime, a group that had outscored Chicago by three points in 19 minutes so far, but Chicago promptly built a five-point lead. Ross was brought in to gun (in place of Valanciunas rather than Nogueira, a complicated decision some will surely disagree with), missed a pair of clean looks, then Lowry missed a good long-range look, and they missed their opportunity to come back.
There would be plenty to wring your hands about here. Blowing this game is pretty inexcusable. Toronto’s a better team, they played like it for a half, and then they shut it down. Great teams shouldn’t have poor halves or quarters as often as the Raptors seem to, and their ability to win despite that is good, until it’s not enough. They didn’t need this win, but burying the Chicago storyline would have been great. Butler really needs more swagger against the Raptors? Raptors fans really need to continue to fret a seven-game series they’d be favored in but nobody would have full confidence in? The Raptors really needed to play four of their starters 41 minutes or more when they’ll tip off in another city less than 24 hours later against a very good Houston team?
Maybe it’s best to just chalk this up to this matchup being what it is, and in this case it may wind up costing Toronto two games. Butler and the Bulls know no bounds when it comes to killing Toronto vibes. It all seems very inevitable at this point, even up 19 in a third quarter. Jimmy Butler is our father.
The Raptors next play the Bulls on (Denzel) Valentine’s Day. I strongly recommend you all just take the night off and spend time with someone who will treat you better than Raptors-Bulls XI will.