The Toronto Raptors can never just play a normal game against the Chicago Bulls, especially in Chicago. Even though the epic 11-game losing streak has since been broken, all but one of the recent battles between the sides have contained something odd or improbable or just plain frustrating. With the Bulls playing a better brand of basketball of late and the Raptors showing some cracks, Wednesday had the potential to be yet another oddball note in the why-is-this-storied Raptors-Bulls non-rivalry.
For three quarters, it looked like that was the direction the game was heading. DeMar DeRozan, Delon Wright, and the rest of the bench had other ideas, steering clear of late-game randomness and pulling away with a 124-115 victory, the team’s fourth in a row now against the Bulls.
It would be hard to imagine an uglier start. Each team managed just a single bucket in the opening three minutes, the Raptors coming out ice cold from outside aside from a game-opening DeRozan triple and the Bulls playing carelessly. Chicago funneled their offense to Robin Lopez, who has such tremendous timing on his rolls that he’s a tough cover in the pick-and-roll, and the Raptors’ attempts to get Jonas Valanciunas touches the other way were clumsy and fruitless. They really didn’t play the smartest quarter, and while an early Dwane Casey timeout saw the Raptors respond with consecutive baskets, the Bulls got going, too, with Lauri Markkanen taking advantage of senseless switches in the post twice in a row.
Kyle Lowry, specifically, had a really tough quarter, turning the ball over four times, and Toronto was stuck seven by the time they reached into their bench. C.J. Miles helped the spacing with an early three – desperately needed with Chicago doing a nice job on the stars and the stars playing poorly in response – but Lopez continued getting quality positioning and Markkanen cruised to double-figures. Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl tried to bring some energy in the frontcourt and Wright crashed the offensive glass, and still the Raptors exited the first down 10 thanks to the defensive miscues, Chicago having shot 54 percent with seven fast-break points and ending the quarter with an open Justin Holiday three off of a Raptors miscommunication.
The Raptors’ bench turned back the clock to earlier in the season from there, locking the Bulls down for a slow-motion comeback. Wright and Fred VanVleet combined for all of the offense in a 9-2 run that took over three minutes, Wright scoring once and setting VanVleet up twice and both playing with the type of aggression that second unit needs. Wright then canned a pair of threes out of a Buills timeout, extending the group’s leash and buying the starters more time on the bench. By the time Lowry and Serge Ibaka returned, Wright and VanVleet had combined for 17 points in six minutes, cutting the lead to one.
Wright continued his strong player alongside the starters from there, and he’d finish the half with team-highs of 15 points (also a season-high for him) and five rebounds. The bench completely changed the energy of the game and the boost Wright provided provided a necessary shot in the arm at both ends. The starters had a tough matchup to close the quarter opposite a Nikola Mirotic-Markkanen frontcourt which saw Norman Powell make a somewhat unusual appearance in a downsized look, an 8-0 Bulls run taking them into half up three.
They came out much more aggressive in the second half, with Ibaka and Anunoby both making strong takes and the Raptors looking to establish action out of the post. No real run materialized as the sides traded defensive miscues. Toronto got a bit of a scare when Lowry was favoring his wrist for multiple possessions, leading to some substitution confusion as the Raptors tried to get him out. He wound up staying in, promptly got to the line, and then the defense produced three blocks in short order (two for Wright, one for Valanciunas) to make it seem like the Raptors might be ready for a run. Lowry went on tilt a bit, though, missing a step-back long-two and then an attempt to bait a three-shot foul in transition, a big swing as Chicago pulled ahead six.
Any time it looked like the Raptors might string some possessions together, a breakdown occurred, a frustrating back-and-forth. DeRozan stepped up to try to lead a run, scoring 10 points in a row to key a 12-2 run as part of an 18-point quarter. DeRozan and a smaller bench foursome closed out the quarter strong, the defense from the reserves really picking things up again and taking the Raptors into the fourth squared up at 90. They could have been up, but they weren’t burnt by the same end-of-quarter play for the third quarter in a row.
The bench had another strong turn at the top of the fourth. Wright pushed to a career-high in points with another three, then skied in for a huge defensive rebound (for a double-double; also a career-high in rebounds) to prevent a Bulls’ third chance. Chicago tried to work through Mirotic, and Siakam and Miles took turns stopping him on post turnarounds, then Bobby Portis missed a post-up on Poeltl that keyed Wright the other way for a Euro-step and the Bulls to a timeout in their biggest hole of the game at five points. The run extended to 9-0 with a Siakam bucket in transition, then to 16-2 with a Lowry triple.
Fred Hoiberg tried one more timeout, suddenly stuck double-digits with time running out, and while there was a bit of a cooling off as both sides returned more starters, it didn’t last long. Ibaka and DeRozan paired up for another 7-0 run, capped by DeRozan’s fourth three of the game, enough to have Lowry yelling “shooter” into a break. Wright picked off a pass and went coast-to-coast with Lowry tipping in his miss, DeRozan made it five threes – a 25-of-46 stretch from long-range! – because why not, and Lowry canned a three that worked as a dagger even if there was no chance of Chicago coming back once the Raptors found that proper gear.
This wasn’t exactly a perfect Raptors performance, with three quarters looking mildly troubling against an improved but still not entirely dangerous team. That it was in Chicago, where the Raptors hadn’t won in five years, does little to change that. The starters looked shaky at times (minus-5 in 13 minutes), Lowry took until the fourth to contribute in a positive way, and they gave up 111.5 points per-100 possessions to the Bulls. Powell still looks lost, Valanciunas’ usage is up and down, and Miles is mired in a rough defensive stretch. The story here is familiar, with the Raptors taking maybe a bit too long to ease into a game and then one group having one really strong stretch, changing gears and putting a game away decisively over just a few minutes. It’s not the easiest way to live.
All of that is true, and it’s hard to begrudge anyone worried about those trends. At the same time, the last 15 minutes or so of this game were some of the best the Raptors have played in some time. They also got massive production from two players who, by the day, look fundamentally different in meaningful ways. It’s little secret Wright has been a Republic favorite for a long time, and if he is hitting – or even shooting – threes (a 10-of-21 stretch) and attacking with this level of confidence, and providing this level of defense and rebounding with any regularity, it’s big. He had 25 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, four steals, and was a plus-28. That’s silly. If DeRozan continues to shoot like this, continues scoring 35 points whenever he feels like it, and continues moving the ball well and showing effort on defense around that, it’s big. If the bench can give this kind of a boost against lesser opponents, helping preserve the stars without sacrificing wins, it’s big.
None of that is certain. It’s still encouraging, though, and on a night where frustration was the vibe for half the game, coming away with multiple reasons for optimism is appreciated. The Raptors also come away with their best record ever through 36 games, a 26-10 mark, and Friday presents an opportunity to beat the Milwaukee Bucks with fewer worrisome caveats underlying the win.