After a tough loss in Boston on Friday night in which the Raptors looked like they may have had some of their weaknesses exposed, having been dominated on the boards to help the Celtics generate a huge advantage in field goal attempts, Toronto had an opportunity to bounce back against the Bulls on Saturday. Chicago had been looked at by many as a team possibly on the verge of making the leap to being a playoff squad coming into the season, and they were coming off a victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday.
The Raptors starters mostly won their minutes to open the game, even despite Pascal Siakam leaving early in the first due to foul trouble, but a lineup of Kyle Lowry with four reserves struggled to close the first quarter and start the second, allowing the Bulls to take a lead, as Nick Nurse expanded the rotation after the starting lineup logged huge minutes in Boston. With Stanley Johnson, Terence Davis, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka alongside Lowry, the Raptors couldn’t generate any offense and had a number of turnovers in short order, with Johnson having three himself in his five first half minutes. To close the half however, Matt Thomas made his regular season debut and gave the team some strong minutes, knocking down two threes and helping the Raptors build an 8-point lead at half-time.
In the third quarter, the Raptors took over, and it was at the defensive end where they really took control of the game. The Raptors held the Bulls to just 32.3% shooting on two-point attempts on the night, and blocked 12 shots, led by OG Anunoby with 4, and it was Anunoby who was the best player on the floor for much of the night. He looked comfortable in the offense playing off what was being created by the players around him and taking advantage of the seams in the defense offered and was stifling at the defensive end. Three of his four blocks were highlight reel material, and he was everywhere slowing down the Bulls, helping keep Zach LaVine to just 11 points on 4-13 shooting.
It was never certain how the Raptors would find enough offense this season, although in this game they generated plenty of looks off of their defense in transition, winning the battle of fast break points 25 to just 7 for the Bulls, and Pascal Siakam has been impressive to open the season to help alleviate some of those concerns, but the team’s defense was expected to be good, returning most of the Championship rotation from a season ago. That was how they delivered the blowout victory on Saturday, through suffocating defensive effort and everything else flowed from there. Marc Gasol had a great bounceback game, despite the lack of scoring, after a couple of rough outings to open the season. He was present on the boards and active defensively, and was involved in the offense as a screener and facilitator, and that helped open things up for other guys. There’s still room left for him to improve, but this was a really positive game from Gasol.
There are plenty of little things that could be looked at as areas that the Raptors have to clean up coming out of this game, and the turnovers and rebounds are still reasonable concerns for this team that they’ll have to continue to address, but this was a night when the Raptors were really good in the places they have to be, and while working out the other things, that’s what they have to do. Nick Nurse got a great effort out of his squad in this one, and they kept the minutes down as well because they were able to generate such a large lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Pascal Siakam bounced back from a tough first quarter to score 17 on the night, and he showed some offensive growth in his game again, dealing better with the double teams that came his way in the second half and hitting a couple of long mid-range jumpers when the defense gave him space, as well as another above-the-break three, after hitting five of those against Boston. It wasn’t the most impressive box score line after the way he’s opened the season, but it was a solid second half for him and he was a big defensive presence for the Raptors as well in this one.
The Raptors bench is still clearly a work in progress. Norman Powell was solid in moments in this game, and Serge Ibaka was fantastic. Matt Thomas gave the team some solid minutes, and given how many good defenders the Raptors have, there’s certainly room to see more minutes for him given the value of his shooting. Aside from those guys though, there’s a lot of work left to be done to form the Raptors’ second unit, and it’s going to have to be something to keep an eye on for the foreseeable future, how Nurse builds a bench and gets rest minutes for his core group of players.
If the Celtics loss was a troubling rough game for a team needing to answer questions, then this one was a feel good one, a reminder of what made the Raptors great a season ago and how much of that team is still intact as they try to defend their title.