The last time the Toronto Raptors endured a four game losing streak during the regular season was on Jan. 4, 2017. In that game Toronto started a forward duo of DeMarre Carrol and Jared Sullinger, who were a combined 0-for-10 from the field. Times may have changed for the better, but the Raptors looked anything but a defending champion in their narrow 93-92 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Monday night which snapped their current three game winless drought.
From the opening tip it was apparent that Pascal Siakam was relieved to have Lauri Markkanen as his primary matchup instead of the likes of Bam Adebayo, Al Horford, and P.J. Tucker guarding him. Siakam immediately silenced overreactions to his brief slump, dicing the Bulls with 13 points in the first quarter on 5-of-7 shooting. The Bulls made a host of difficult shots to keep the game tied at 30-30 to close the first quarter. One can accuse Zach LaVine of many things — selfish play, lacklustre defence, and poor decision-making to name a few— but the guy can shoot the lights out.
It was a middling start to the game for Toronto, but the trusty ‘Kyle Lowry plus bench’ lineup emerged to open the second quarter and reopen a lead. Nick Nurse opted to give Malcolm Miller some run with this group but his time was short-lived after a few ugly offensive possessions and Chris Boucher was quickly inserted instead. Lowry pushed the pace with hit-ahead passes and consistently caught the Bulls napping in transition. Ibaka bullied a Bulls bench that didn’t have a nominal centre on the floor with 10 rebounds in just seven minutes of action.
Still, Toronto were not crisp in the first half. In fact neither team looked keen on winning. One may have predicted a sloppy encounter given that both teams were on the second night of a back-to-back and neither stumped those expectations. Toronto begged the Bulls to take control of the game by gifting them offensive rebounds— a familiar story— but Chicago’s equally poor outside-shooting couldn’t capitalize on those opportunities. The Bulls closed the half 5-for 20 from deep on plenty of wide-open looks.
The opening of the third quarter was equally as dismal. Chicago finally refused to settle and instead attacked the paint, beating the Raptors on-ball defenders and causing the help defence to sag. Even on kick-outs the Bulls continued to penetrate and deliver the extra pass against Toronto’s scrambling defence. It took Nurse all of two minutes to call a timeout borne out of frustration.
“Things just seemed to be out of rhythm,” said Nurse.
There are always exceptions to the rule, and in the Raptors’ case it was O.G. Anunoby’s energy and Marc Gasol’s defensive positioning. Anunoby was the lone defensive spark that applied constant pressure on his opponent. He not only nullified his own matchup, but began to fly into passing lines and timed his help defence to perfection.
Always dunk your cookies, kids pic.twitter.com/h6FAIKtLqC
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 10, 2019
“He has some very unique tools, very special player. He can give you so much and we expect so much from him,” Gasol said of Anunoby. “But with great gifts come great responsibility. We are going to demand a lot of him not only physically but also mentally, understanding who he is guarding and what the team needs. The amount of ground he can cover, it’s special. I’m going to be hard on him sometimes, but always positive though.”
A couple of physical exchanges between Gasol and Wendell Carter Jr. sparked some life into a previously dull affair. Carter beat Gasol to the rim and earned a trip to the free-throw line, clocking the Spaniard with an elbow to the chin in the process. On the next trip down, Gasol popped Carter off of the low-block with some patented old man strength to seal position and score an easy layup. From there, both teams began to finally partake in a competitive basketball game.
Lowry leaned on his griftiness to shrink the deficit in the fourth quarter. He poked the ball away from Carter and then stuck himself between the big man and the ball, tumbling over upon impact to draw the foul. (there were hints of floppiness about it, but we will look the other way on this one.) Lowry then grifted his way to the foul line by again drawing a clumsy foul on Carter following the Bulls defensive trap. The Raptors somehow finally had a lead. Immediately after the Chicago timeout, Nurse went to a 3-2 zone for a few possessions and stifled the Bulls repeatedly. In a game where Toronto had every chance to lose, it pays to have a coach that makes slight adjustments to positively effect winning on the margins.
While Anunoby’s defensive effort was the sole reason that prevented Toronto from falling apart, and Lowry’s griftiness got them to level-pegging, it was Gasol’s defence at the rim that took home the victory.
With thirty seconds left and the Raptors up one, Markkanen rolled to the rim with a clean look at the hoop less than five feet away. Gasol quickly left his man and rotated to Markkanen, perfectly timing a block with his patented two inch vertical jump. After another putrid Raptors possession, Chicago had another chance at victory and they turned to LaVine, who glided by Powell towards the hoop. However, Gasol was aware of this potential outcome before the ball even made it to LaVine’s hands, preemptively leaving his man and rotating over, planting his feet firmly outside of the restricted are and stretching every bit of his seven-foot frame directly in the air. LaVine bumped off of Gasol and waywardly flipped the ball toward the hoop unsuccessfully. It wasn’t a pretty victory, but it was a victory nonetheless to stop Nurse’s longest losing streak of his Raptor’s coaching carer.
“We found a way, so we’ll take it and get out of here before something else happens and they change their minds.”