These still being the Raptors, the shell of the rotation made things tough for the Chicago Bulls. The Raptors trailed by only three after the first quarter and, after Chicago built a 24-point lead, made things interesting with a 14-4 run to end the third quarter. The defensive effort rarely wavered, fueling enough just enough in transition to hang around. Johnson carried the bulk of the offence (predictably!) while Bembry and Fynn chipped in where they could. The Bulls needed a win to keep their fading play-in hopes alive, and the Raptors made them work for every edge.
There can be a limit to effort and spirit, especially as players accustomed to spare minutes eked up over 30 and even 40 on the night. The Bulls managed to hold off a full comeback for the 114-102 win
It’s really difficult to take too much from a game like this. While there’s legitimate value in developmental reps for the younger players and a chance for the staff to evaluate them, when you get this thin, the sample is almost completely non-representative. Baynes, Birch and Gillespie — three guys who are clearly centres at this stage — played in pairings together (sadly, never as a trio). Harris was getting three bodies sent his way in the paint late in the shot clock. Flynn had next to nowhere to go coming off of screens with so little spacing. It’s not exactly the ideal personnel for pet end-of-quarter plays like the 38 sweep.
The reps remain valuable, and positives can be taken from it. Harris continues to look like a fun developmental piece. Johnson had a career night in very efficient fashion, and his teammates clearly loved it. OG Anunoby mimicked a Bembry dunk from the bench with a big smile. There are moments, plays, experiences and confidence that can grow from the lowest-leverage of situations.
You take what you want from nights like this. You just don’t get worked up about the struggles or the result. And really, whether they say it or not, the outcome was the point.
With the loss, the Raptors have secured sole possession of the No. 7 lottery odds for the 2021 NBA Draft.
Two — Wow: To describe Stanley Johnson’s performance as anything other than incredible would be short-changing him. Johnson is typically one of the Raptors’ least involved players offensively, but on a night where everyone else was out, Johnson took it upon himself to be the go-to option. Johnson knocked down a few threes early on and was aggressive with his drives. By the fourth quarter, his teammates were looking for Johnson to create on every broken play, and Johnson was able to deliver with stepback threes, bullyball in the post and, after nailing down his last shot of the night which forced the Bulls into a timeout, Johnson even stuck his tongue out like Michael Jordan as he headed to the bench with 35 points.
The loss to the Bulls guaranteed them finishing with the seventh-best lottery odds. From there, they have a 7.5 per cent chance of drafting first overall and a 31.9 per cent chance of drafting in the top four, and an 85 per cent chance of choosing in the top eight.
Given the success the Raptors have had late in the draft – Anunoby was taken 23rd overall, Siakam 27th, and VanVleet was undrafted – a mid-to-high lottery pick is worth getting excited about.
The Raptors have picked seventh or better once in 15 years, coming away with Jonas Valanciunas with the fifth pick in 2011, one of the most consistent and productive centres in the league, even now with Memphis. Jakob Poeltl was the ninth pick in 2016 and is getting some all-defence buzz as the starting centre in San Antonio. DeMar DeRozan was the ninth pick in 2009 and has four all-star nods on his resume, currently playing some of the best basketball of his career in San Antonio in his 12th season.
Done right, the upcoming draft will yield an important player. With luck, it might even yield a star, especially given the view that the projected top-five players in the lottery all have all-star potential.
There’s no guarantees. One of the reasons the Bulls may have felt the pressure to push their chips in is that the draft hasn’t been all that fruitful for them. They acquired LaVine by trade.
Patrick Williams has some promise, but the No. 4 overall pick in 2020 may not make either the first or second all-rookie teams. Coby White was taken No. 7 in 2019 and the jury remains out on him as a speedy point guard who struggles to shoot . Wendell Carter, whom they took seventh in 2018 was traded to Orlando for Vucevic.
Lauri Markkanen was the seventh pick in 2017, acquired by the Bulls acquired when they sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota (the same deal that got them LaVine). The big Finn will head into free agency this summer as a restricted free agent having lost his starting role and having a similar skillset as Vucevic’s, though not nearly as good.
The draft offers no guarantees, but the given the way this season has gone, the Raptors will doubtless be happy to take their chances, and thank their stars they aren’t in the situation the Bulls are in.
I was watching the Raptors broadcast tonight and because there isn’t much to talk about in regards to the actual team their television crew was going off on a lot of tangents. At one point, their color commentator pointed out that he thinks the Bulls are talented but that they don’t have enough winners on their team and that is why they are still bad. Jealous talk from a broadcaster whose team he’s supposed to talk about sucks or a legitimate point?
This really was a game that the Bulls had absolutely no business losing. The Raptors injury report was longer than the 3-pointers Denzel Valentine attempts when he does a heat check. Most of the guys that did play you had to rack your brain to remember their first names or any relevant information about them really.
Toronto was down 19 at halftime, but a run of scoring from Johnson in the third cut the lead to 12. Coupled with some nice screen-setting and a few buckets from Aron Baynes, another surprise face, the Raptors nearly had another fake comeback on their hands (maybe the fakest of them all!): with 5:44 left, a Johnson three cut Chicago’s lead to nine.
It wasn’t meant to be, though. The Bulls responded with a 4-0 run of their own after a timeout and kept Toronto at bay the rest of the game. When Stanley Johnson is your hero, I guess there’s only so far you can go; the process was fun to watch, but you kind of knew the outcome based on who was in the Raptors’ rotation.
In support of Stan, the rookie starting backcourt of Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris combined for 33 points. Harris had a great start, scoring ten of his 17 in the first quarter, and continued a run of sweet shooting, going 3-for-6 from distance. Flynn was measured at point guard, and had a critical role in providing Johnson space on the weak side throughout the game. His seven assists led the team, but they really could’ve used a few shots too — Flynn was just 2-for-10 from downtown.
Chicago more or less won the game with outside shooting and rebounding. While their red hot first half tapered off, they still made 47.2% on threes and were +17 in rebounds. Most were on the defensive end to help lead the Bulls break. The main recipients of this were White and Javonte Green, who combined for 27 much-needed support points at the guard position. Zach LaVine had his usual point total with 24, while Lauri Markkanen dropped 20 off the bench.
The Raptors, now without even the thought of negative seeding on their minds, have just two games left in the season. The first of those will be tomorrow night against the Mavericks.
The loss locks the Raptors into the seventh worst record this season.
For Nurse, the game continued to provide real-time teaching opportunities. You can sense there are points in games when the coach would love to just blow his whistle, stop the proceedings for some instructional moments and carry on. There aren’t enough timeouts in a game to allow him to do all the pointing out he wants but he tries to sneak in some instruction on the fly.
“There’s probably a lot more learning and teaching that needs to go on with younger players, maybe that’s what you’re seeing a little bit,” Nurse said this week. “Usually the vets … you tell them one time and they’re going to make the shift or they’re going to make it on their own. The younger guys … don’t see it, they don’t feel it, so you’ve got to maybe tell them again or tell them in a different way or draw it out for them or whatever it is.
“You just keep looking for the way that they can let it sink in and then take it to the floor and execute it.”
But the games are going to end Sunday — the last game in Tampa against Indiana was set for 1 p.m. by the league on Thursday – and that’s when the work really begins.
The Raptors will have a top-10 draft pick for the first time since they chose Jakob Poeltl ninth in 2016, and that process will keep scouts busy.
For Nurse and his developmental staff, though, it will be about fine-tuning and expanding the skills of players Toronto will invite back.
VERDICT: What a nonsense season
I can own some of the losses here on their own merit. The entire point of the exercise is to expand outside of the comfort zone and look for lower- or higher-percentile storylines. Some of these I’m going to claim as process victories, since many of them would or could have been right if so many players hadn’t been shut down. I need to feel something.
I was, of course, too optimistic relative to the season that was, as I think most were. If anyone predicted a 1-13 month based around a team- and staff-wide health-and-safety outbreak and then a post-deadline resting en masse, they are a witch. And not the cool kind of witch like Matt Skiba. The mean kind.
Here’s hoping next year’s a little more predictable. Or that I can sneak some more lukewarm predictions by you all as bold based on “well, the Raptors were bad last season, any optimism is bold!” Get ready to smash those win total over-unders.