There needs to be a word to describe a situation where a team is trailing and at the same time there’s never a doubt they’ll win. That’s the situation the Raptors were sort of in last evening against the Bulls. For the viewer, the most challenging part of the game is to remember just who is on the court for Chicago, because after watching for a few minutes, they all blend into one player…let’s call that player Justin Dunn. If you knew nothing else about Justin Dunn, just by his name alone you can probably tell he’s a lanky guard with some decent handles, a suspect shot, and an improving but still mostly ineffective drive game and, of course, questionable distribution skills. Now, Justin Dunn doesn’t exist, yet every Bull is Justin Dunn. In fact, deep down, we are all #JustinDunn, albeit in varying degrees.
Let’s fast forward to the 1:21 mark of the fourth quarter when Justin Dunn hit a 27-foot three-pointer to bring the Bulls within three, after which Justin Dunn fouled Kawhi Leonard to send him to the line and the superstar hit both free throws. Down five with 55 seconds left, the Bulls needed to come up with a score. A clutch score. All they mustered was some weak action which was predictably capped off by a solo, one-on-one step-back by Justin Dunn with a hand in his face, and that was the ball game. That moment reminded me of the Raptors of yesteryear when they managed to stay close in games they had little business being around in, only for the inevitable L to somehow manage to rear its ugly head. It feels awfully great to be sitting on the other side of that equation and watching a team that gave it all they had come up short against your team, who maybe gave it 70% of what they had.
37% shooting by the Raptors coupled with allowing plenty of dribble penetration to the tune of the Bulls shooting 41%, complemented by a +4 in PITP kept them hanging around. This image from ESPN tells the story of how the game went – it was pretty close, until it wasn’t. Then it was close again, but not really.
You can either present the narrative of surprise at why the Bulls were able to hang around, or chalk it up to another ho-hum holiday basketball game where nobody quite gave enough shits. We’ll do both. First, the former. I spoke about Fred Van Vleet in the pre-game a little, and this game reinforced how much his decision-making can be improved. There was a sequence where he was still 0-for-whatever, and took a premature three only for it to be rebounded and come to Siakam, who dutifully passed the ball back to FVV well beyond the three-point line with the shot-clock reset to 14. Fred took a shot right away and missed. I realize that he’s being guarded by Justin Dunn and it’s the Bulls on a Sunday evening rubber match, yet that sequence shows that FVV has a tendency to knowingly make the wrong decision. He fully well knew that the right thing to do might be to reset, run a play, and maybe even reward the rebounder for his hustle. Yet, he did something silly, if not selfish. I fully acknowledge that I’m being anal and pedantic, but that sequence bugged me, only because I worry that if that kind of play allows the Bulls to hang around today, it’ll bite us in the ass in the post-season. Second, the latter: shooting this poorly in back-to-back games is nothing but the lethargy of the holiday season manifesting on the court, and just like how in offices around the country there’s little expectation of any work being done, MLSE is no different.
Zach Lavine, being guarded mostly by Danny Green, went a woeful 3-17, many of them forced shots, which I assume is by design here because, well, there’s only so much Justin Dunn can do and perhaps having Lavine fire away was the Bulls best hope. They had a lot of success off the bounce against Raptors guards, who were eager to close-out than contest, and kudos to the Bulls for recognizing that. Unfortunately for them, they had to do a lot more recognizing to actually have a chance because they were up against Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard, both of whom were locked in defensively when they needed to be. Siakam’s (7-12 FG, 20 pts, 12 reb) constantly running motor always disrupted the Bulls, and he was able to get to the rim whenever he wanted, whether it be off scramble plays or in the half-court set. Here’s his ridiculous shot-chart where he’s taken zero mid-range jumpers:
Kawhi Leonard settled for a couple threes, but mostly operated in the mid-range area where he got fouled on every possession, they just happened to call a few of them. He went 8-22 FG including 10-11 FT, which is a very DeMaresque line, except that he was zoned in defensively and though he doesn’t miraculously have a steal credited to him, was a factor every time the Bulls picked up the dribble anywhere near the top of the key. The pressure the Raptors applied whenever Justin Dunn or Justin Dunn were unsure of their options late in the clock, especially in the late third/early fourth, was a big factor in the win. Here’s Kawhi’s shot-chart:
In the first half when Justin Dunn and the Bulls were having their moment, a couple plays clicked in my head and provided me with some thoughts on what might keep the Raptors from winning the title. Bear with me here patient reader, as this is most likely the Woodford Reserve talking, and I could be entirely wrong. Here goes.
The first has to do with Delon Wright:
He has to take that shot 100 times out of 100. We cannot afford to have a guard on the court that will pass up a clean look with 9 on the shot-clock. Notice how Justin Dunn leaves him open to help underneath, and Greg Monroe made the right play in passing to Wright to make the cheater pay, except he hesitated. To make matters worse, when he drove, he didn’t recognize Monroe open underneath, turned his body the wrong way and ended up taking a poor shot. It’s one small play, and I’m sure his coach will point this out to him, yet these are the types of plays which championship teams execute consistently. Let us all participate in Wright’s learning moment. To be clear, Wright had some pretty sweet plays in this game including this little move, so I’m not picking on him, only pointing out room for improvement.
The other is on the defensive end. Much has been made of our bench unit taking a dive this year, and while I don’t know the whole reason why they’re not as productive as last year, I can surmise that more diverse rotations, injuries, some personal issues, have something to do with it. However, here’s something which is entirely unrelated to that and everything to do with communication.
The Bulls get a clean look off a simple screen (which wasn’t even used) because OG was over-helping. Greg Monroe had the paint covered leaving OG with little need to drop down. This left Justin Dunn wide open for a three. It’s one play which is symptomatic of how the bench unit isn’t necessarily on the exact same page. In this play you also had Norman Powell and Chris Boucher on the court as well, so there is something to be said for lack of familiarity with each other. However, it’s this sort of stuff the bench needs to clean-up to return to their former glorious self. The great news is that we got the rest of the season to do it.
Happy New Year!