It had all the makings of another classic Toronto Raptors-Chicago Bulls meeting.
Both sides were down a star, making sure the constant lineup churn that’s lasted through the past three years remained. Jimmy Butler was present, in all his paternalistic glory. And the new-look Bulls offered plenty of possible names to step into the Doug McDermott/Tony Snell role of random Raptor killer (they saw you, Paul Zipser). When Rajon Rondo came out of the gate hitting threes – this ranked as one of the five best long-range shooting nights of his career by the end – the writing appeared to be on the wall.
The jokes wrote themselves, but nobody was actually joking. The Bulls had taken 11 straight from the Raptors, and there was little reason to believe, with the Raptors predictably down 16 points in the second quarter, this meeting would be any different. Anyone who had convinced themselves otherwise surely felt silly after doubling down at halftime, the Raptors having cut the lead to a more manageable five, only for it to explode back to 15 at the end of the third quarter.
But something happened during that third quarter. It can be overly simplistic to point to one event as the sole cause of the events that followed, there are palpable energy changes over the course of a game or a season. The Raptors remember their comeback against the Boston Celtics well, when a seemingly innocuous DeMarre Carroll shove of Isaiah Thomas in transition led to itty bitty finger guns and a complete change in demeanor for Toronto. Serge Ibaka went a step beyond finger guns, decking Robin Lopez with a punch after Lopez offered the opening salvo. Both players would earn ejections after a long period of separation that included DeMar DeRozan rolling Ibaka away from the scrum, Cory Joseph narrowly avoiding catching a stray, and P.J. Tucker pushing Ibaka back as far as he could to keep the peace.
“I’ve gotten in to those kinds of things and gotten suspended for it,” Tucker said after the game. “I don’t want to see nobody give any money away. That’s why I wrapped him up. We need him. I don’t want him to get in anymore trouble…He’s strong. It wasn’t easy.”
Tucker probably failed in keeping Ibaka from suspension. Both bigs will likely earn additional time off and a severely lightened chequing account, but it was important to Ibaka to send a message regardless. It sounded reminiscent of Bismack Biyombo’s claims a year ago that the Raptors would not be punked, and this year’s version of the team looks less and less punkable by the day.
“What happened is we were playing physical basketball and he got frustrated. It’s basketball. That thing happened where you just start push each other, like always happens when there’s contact,” Ibaka explained. “And then he throws a punch. You know, like a man, I had to defend myself. I’m not just going to be out there and watch a man like him punch me and just walk away. I had to defend myself. So that’s what happened?”
Ibaka’s primary goal was self defense, but it seems little coincidence, in retrospect, that the scuffle occurred as the Bulls owned their largest lead of the game, at 16. The Air Canada Centre had been lulled into a bit of a “not this again” state early on, and Ibaka’s statement firmly rallied them back up. From there, every basket grew louder, the lead ticking away and building to a crescendo when the Raptors took their first of the game early in overtime. The Raptors have talked a lot about energy of late, and while it would have been nice to see full, 48-minute displays in consecutive games, it’s almost more impressive and encouraging that they flipped a switch so late and stormed back. They have Ibaka – or Lopez, rather – to thank for that, odd though it is that losing perhaps your second-best player could help.
“Yeah, it got us going,” DeMar DeRozan said. “Something like that happens, the crowd got into it, our fans love things like that especially with it being a hockey city. So they got a little excitement out of that and it got us going.”
Nobody seemed to get going more than DeRozan, who may have turned in the best all-around performance of his career. He fell one point shy of his career-high by only scoring 42, but the degree of difficulty opposite Butler warrants a bump in status. That DeRozan took 38 shots does little to sully the total given how much Toronto needed each of those baskets and how much they relied on him down the stretch. Instead, it’s that he was able to take that many shots and still be the team’s best playmaker that stands out, with DeRozan dishing eight assists, a pair of secondary assists, and a number of others that didn’t drop because the team shot 8-of-23 on threes. (DeRozan was 1-of-5, including a very deep make at the end of the shot clock and a buzzer-beater at the end of regulation that was designed as a drive.)
DeRozan also helped set the tone on defense, rejecting a Joffrey Lauvergne dunk at the rim and picking Rajon Rondo’s pocket in transition to set up a Tucker triple, two highlights that will surely stand out as the discussion about DeRozan’s recent defensive play picks up.
“We needed everything,” he said. “Every scrap that we could pull out of there. It wasn’t about plays at that point, it was moreso who wanted it more. We all did a collective effort of putting in and doing our part.”
That Tucker three cut the lead to 11 with under six minutes to go, and Dwane Casey’s makeshift closing lineup of DeRozan, Tucker, Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet, and apparent rim-protector Patrick Patterson at center in place of the tossed Ibaka closed the remaining gap in a hurry. Chicago mustered just seven points over the final seven minutes of regulation against that group, and Tucker in particular was a marvel on defense, scrambling all over the floor, bodying up any Bull nearby (usually Butler), and hitting the glass with abandon.
Tucker has quickly become a prominent voice within the team, particularly on the court. He could just as easily be a lead-by-example type, though, as his impact continues to be obvious whenever he’s on the floor in meaningful situations. Perhaps it makes sense that Tucker and Ibaka had such large impacts in the tone and demeanor of the Raptors in this comeback, as they were never a part of the so-called curse with the Bulls to begin with. The collective dread of another failed Chicago comeback, another blocked DeRozan winner, another Butler outburst, is far less when new parts of the collective don’t feel any damn way about it.
And so the Raptors have yet another marquee victory under their belts, from the perspective of their own identity forming process. Three wins in a row with gutty performances, against teams fighting for their playoff lives, with a strong defensive focus. They’re now 9-5 since the break, all of that without Kyle Lowry, and they’re moving more and more in Casey’s preferred direction of locking down who they are as a defense now and trusting that Lowry will help carry the offense higher when he returns. Surely, he’d like to see the near-term part of the equation show up earlier in games, but he wasn’t willing to argue with an outcome that he joked was a “piece of cake.”
“Here’s a team that kicked our butts the last 11 games, I was disappointed the way we started the game and ecstatic about how we finished the game,” Casey said. “That’s how we have to play.”
The win is helpful in a lot of ways. The continued positive feedback of the new approach is important, and a virtuous cycle could be building here. Pulling to within a half-game of Washington is important. Winning a close game before you potentially lose Ibaka for a couple is important.
There are all sorts of reasons winning a game in mid-March is meaningful, but this felt more like an exorcism, something a little more grandiose. The Bulls were the last vestige of the Old Raptors, where every step forward in the right direction came with a biting reminder of how easily it could all fall apart. They can’t win without experience. They can’t defend in the playoffs. They can’t get out of the first round. Lowry and DeRozan are too easy to gameplan for. If they run into the Bulls, they’re toast. As the Raptors grow and build, each previously perceived shortcoming, even one that’s mostly just imagined here, falls to the wayside. There remain obstacles, but those obstacles are understandable, and based in logic so that they can be approached with reason.
The Raptors can beat the Bulls, because they’re better than the Bulls. And now they never have to think about them again.