Donovan, in his pregame interview with reporters, had just talked about how the Bulls must establish better offensive balance. Last season’s squad became overly reliant on DeRozan in part out of necessity, and this season’s mission has been to build out a more sustainable approach.
“My goal would be can we have five to seven guys at the end of 82 games that are in double figures scoring?” Donovan said. “You’ve got to have, I really believe, an entire team where everybody is to a certain degree a threat.”
A pair of games against the Eastern Conference rival Raptors on consecutive nights brought a worthy early season challenge. Toronto, even without Pascal Siakam, poses problems throughout their primary lineup because of their length and athleticism. Their players defend multiple positions, cover ground in a blink of an eye and take pleasure in trying to block any shot attempt within five feet.
From turnovers to rebounding, the Raptors exposed multiple areas the Bulls need to improve upon. Andre Drummond’s impending return from a left shoulder sprain will help the rebounding. For now, those issues are secondary to how DeRozan and the Bulls embraced Toronto’s frenetic strategy and excelled against the Raptors’ “all-out assault.” It was progress the Bulls want and need to show this season. Their first-round series against Milwaukee stands as a reminder of why it’s vital for the Bulls to generate reliable offensive production beyond DeRozan and LaVine.
“That’s what it’s about,” DeRozan said. “We’ve got to be coming together, jelling, as a team. That’s what it’s going to have to be. It’s not about me being the leading scorer every night (or) Zach. We’ve got to be able to play the right way so teams don’t know how to defend us. And if you try to take one of us away out of me and Zach, other guys could get it going as well and it makes our job a lot easier.”
The difference between Sunday’s nine-point loss and Monday’s 14-point win — aside from LaVine’s presence on Monday — started with improved spacing. It’s a basic principle the Bulls have drilled on since training camp. Monday, they used the middle of the floor more to help spread out Toronto’s defense. DeRozan quickly diagnosed oncoming double teams and routinely made quick reads to hit open teammates. Each time, it created a Bulls advantage.
“And the next guy’s got to make the next play,” Donovan said. “For DeMar, that just instills trust into the team. You can’t just rely on him to get 46 like he did in Boston. That may happen on given nights because he’s that good. But that’s not sustainable every single night. We need an entire team. And tonight, he read the floor the way he was being guarded and he made the right basketball plays.”
Donovan even credited DeRozan’s decision-making for LaVine’s best night yet, a game-high 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting.
“His willingness to move and share the basketball, what ended up happening was the ball was moving and there was penetration and a lot of times it found Zach,” Donovan said. “And Zach got a lot of easy catch-and-shoot opportunities, which was great because when he does that he’s as good as anybody in the league when he catches and shoots. The more often he can do that, the better it is for us.”
LaVine, of course, likes it.
“Get up more 3s,” he said. “Someone telling me to shoot more sounds good.”
DeRozan reiterated he will play whatever style is needed each night to give the Bulls the best chance to win. He said he welcomes extra defenders. He knows how to make them pay.
“We got a lot of wide-open shots,” DeRozan said. “We got a lot of people involved. It’s fun. It’s a respect thing, obviously. It’s a guy at me every time I cross halfcourt. With that, you just try to be a high-IQ basketball player from that standpoint. And I’m all for it. I don’t get frustrated. It’s nothing but patience for me. All I care about at the end of the day is winning. And if that calls for me to be a playmaker throughout the night, I’m all for it.”
VanVleet got the Raptors rolling with an early assist on a Christian Kololo lay-up, converted a fastbreak off an O.G. Anunoby steal and then banged down a trio of early threes.
The Raptors are deep and have their share of ball-handlers, so VanVleet’s usage rate has been down this season – 17.7 per cent compared to 23.7 and 23.9 the last two years as he was making the transition from supporting actor to all-star. But VanVleet has clearly been making room for others this year. With Pascal Siakam (groin) out VanVleet’s 26.3 per cent usage rate Sunday was the highest of the season. His highest prior to that – 25.2 – came in a win against the Miami Heat when Scottie Barnes was injured.
But the Bulls weren’t having it. After watching VanVleet torch them on Sunday and come out smoking in the first quarter Monday, they made a point of turning off his water as rangy, athletic second-year guard Ayo Dosunmu made a point of picking up VanVleet for the length of the court, forcing him to work for every inch of floor, and often seeing a second defender when he did get to the half court. VanVleet was scoreless in the second quarter but shook loose for 16 of his game-high 27 in the second half, but he couldn’t drag Toronto back into the game.
Unfortunately, no one else looked very good at all…
Paging: Scottie Barnes? Gary Trent Jr.? Precious Achiuwa? Anyone? Keep this game in mind people get carried away with the notion that there is a list of players on this team ready to eat up shots, minutes and spotlight currently occupied by VanVleet or Siakam.
With a star player out and more shots and touches available to go around a lineup filled with players either looking to grow their offensive profile of just get a chance to show they deserve any kind of opportunity at all, the Raptors visit to Chicago proved to be a huge dud. VanVleet played well, but after that? No-shows.
We’ll give Anunoby some slack because he at least held up his end of the bargain defensively as he filled a big part of the game plan to make Toronto get beat by ’anyone but DeRozan’ as he helped hold DeRozan to 18 points on a total of 15 shots over the two games (9 on six shots Monday night).
Anunoby continued as a one-man turnover machine, adding three more steals to his league-leading total. But after that? Barnes didn’t score his first field goal until his ferocious dunk late in the second quarter. He was 1-for-7 then and finished with five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Trent Jr. (19 points) played to his average, nothing more… Achiuwa was not a factor and Boucher was a non-factor off the bench as the Bulls reserves out-scored Toronto 32-18 heading into the third quarter.
After Toronto hounded DeMar DeRozan with an aggressive trap-heavy attack for the majority of his possessions last night during the Raptors’ 113-104 victory, it was a massive relief for Bulls fans to get another elite finisher back on the hardwood.
The Raptors started out hot early in the first quarter, but Chicago caught up and eventually passed them up, leading 30-27 heading into the second frame. It looked for a moment like the Bulls were going to run away with the game in the second quarter, at one point going up by as many as 13 points before they took their foot off the gas late in the half. The Raptors closed the quarter on a 10-2 run.
At least Chi Slamma Jamma was in full effect. Derrick Jones Jr. had a couple monster slams:
Patrick Williams continued his run of actually looking like he cared about the game tonight (he finished with 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, six rebounds, two assists and a block in 24:47), and got into the fun with a dunk of his own off an Ayo Dosunmu dime near the end of the second quarter:
Chicago really broke away in the third period, thanks in large part to the efficient scoring efforts of Nikola Vucevic (9 points on 4-of-5 shooting), Ayo Dosunmu and Zach LaVine (who combined for 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting), solid paint play late from Derrick Jones Jr. and Javonte Green, plus excellent scrambling defense courtesy of Green and Alex Caruso, Chicago headed into the game’s final frame up 16, 86-70.
Check Green getting ex-Bull Otto Porter Jr. out of his rhythm here during the quarter:
Toronto was +24 in points in the paint last night, but the Bulls made a clear concerted effort to head inside, outscoring the Raptors 56-50 in that metric tonight.
The Bulls led by as many as 21 points early in the fourth quarter by beating up some Raptors reserves + starting shooting guard OG Anunoby, with the game looking close to over — until Nick Nurse brought back Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent, Jr., Scottie Barnes, and Christian Koloko to join Anunoby. This new lineup sparked a 12-4 run, cutting the lead to 12.
What had been a potential blowout/rest opportunity on the second night of a back-to-back became a chippier contest than one would have hoped, but Chicago hung on to secure the double-digit victory.
DeRozan makes the Raptors pay
While DeMar DeRozan usually makes opponents pay with his scoring, it was his passing that did the damage. Under duress for most of the game, DeRozan racked up seven assists, many of them leading to easy baskets for his teammates. The assist total was DeRozan’s highest of the season, as he took what the defense gave him and did not force the issue.
DeRozan finished the game with just nine points on a mere six attempts — the lowest number of field goal attempts that he’s had in his stint with the Bulls. However, his presence was enough to keep the defense on their toes and open up opportunities for his teammates.
“Tonight was all about his greatness as a player. Because it was a total give himself up for the benefit of the team. He read the floor, the way he was being guarded, and he made the right basketball plays,” Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said.
Scoring just five points in 30 minutes, the main subplot from tonight’s game was where Barnes went to for long stretches. Six rebounds and five assists were nice, but the Raps really needed Scottie’s aggression and scoring punch without Siakam in the lineup — and will for the foreseeable future. Tonight, that 14-point difference between his Sunday output (19 points) and Monday was literally the difference in the game.
Scottie grievances aside (he’s just a sophomore after all), the Raptors didn’t help themselves any when tempers flared in the third quarter. When a Kyle Lowry Not A Shooting Foul Memorial no call came his way, Fred VanVleet picked up a technical foul for sarcastically complaining. The offense continued to look heliocentric as Fred tried to use the tech as fuel for his own game, but ultimately both teams got stuck in the mud through most of the third. Late in the frame, it was the Bulls who broke out, as two timely putbacks — with plenty of Raptors around to contest — made Chicago’s lead 15. They’d go into the fourth up 86-70.
Then, the patented fake comeback. After two LaVine threes stretched Chicago’s lead to 21, the Raptors bench got a mini 4-0 run — capped by Hernangomez setting up an Achiuwa layup on a pretty interior pass. That was all Nick Nurse needed to bring the starters back in, and while the Raptors were able to get as close as 10, the dogged inconsistencies on offense caught up with them again. They weren’t able to put together the run needed to really scare the Bulls, as Chicago treaded until garbage time, when it was finally time to take the starters out.
The Raptors now head home to lick their wounds, as they’ve got a Scotiabank Arena matchup with a spunky Houston Rockets team on Wednesday night.
With Pascal Siakam out for at least a couple more weeks, the Raptors are going to have to rely even more on a varied offence and their scrambling defence. They had neither as the Bulls picked them apart offensively and Toronto got too little production from anyone other than Fred VanVleet, who had 27 points, and Gary Trent Jr., who added 19.
Raptor Precious Achiuwa has had some good moments, just not enough of them. And until he can match the consistency of effort off the bench of the likes of Chris Boucher, it’s going to be hard for coach Nick Nurse to play him heavy minutes.
“I think we’re still trying to raise that level of consistency up with Precious,” Nurse said of the third-year big man. “Precious, when he’s got it going, when he’s running the floor and rebounding hard, it usually transfers to the rest of his game. It’s just finding that spark to get it going for him. I’ve been thinking of a lot of ways to do that for him.”
Achiuwa had 10 points and five assists, passable numbers, but his overall impact on the game was minimal.
Part of it was the back-to-back they were finishing up, and part of it was trying to inject some pace and spark into a lethargic group as Nurse went much deeper than usual into his bench. Using seldom-used Dalano Banton and Juancho Hernangómez in first-half minutes meant the Raptors used 11 of 12 players before halftime. And when Malachi Flynn got in the game in the third quarter, Nurse had used everyone at his disposal.
For the third time already in this young season, the Raptors faced the same opponent in consecutive games and, for the third time, the Raptors could do no more than earn a split.
This one was a little different with the games taking place in two venues, but the result was the same, a win and a loss. On Monday night it was an 111-97 defeat in Chicago following a Raptors win the night before in Toronto against this same Bulls team.
Well, not quite the same as the Bulls welcomed Zach LaVine back and he was certainly a factor, giving the Bulls a game-high 30 after sitting out the first game of this mini-series to rest his surgically repaired knee following an off-season procedure.
Fred VanVleet had another strong game in his second game back since missing three contests with some lower back soreness.
VanVleet had a Raptors-high 27 points in a losing cause.
Toronto once again put lid on former teammate DeMar DeRozan, holding him to nine points, but had no answer for LaVine.
With the loss, the Raptors fell to 6-5 on the season.
The Raptors return home for a single game with Houston on Wednesday before heading back out on the road for a three-game trip that starts Friday in Oklahoma City.
9. Toronto Raptors (previously 14th) | 6-4 | +7.5 net rating
Weekly slate: Win over Hawks, Win at Spurs, Loss at Mavs, Win over Bulls
Transition offense: 119.7 points per 100 possessions (tied-fifth) | 21.4 percent of possessions (second)
Transition defense: 111.2 points per 100 possessions (18th) | 15.9 percent of possessions (tied-ninth)
The effect: This Raptors team has a sweltering transition game they throw at their opponents. The defensive side of it is fine. Not completely ideal, but they limit chances a good amount, and they’re decent at preventing the scoring in those chances. But offensively? This team is a nightmare in transition. The Raptors are so opportunistic in how they create turnovers and immediately take it the other way. It’s a big part of the reason they have one of the top overall offenses in the NBA. The Raptors have a little over one-fifth of their possessions on offense come from transition opportunities. It’s especially mind-blowing when you realize this is a team that has a very slow overall pace. The Raptors just know when to pounce.
Siakam’s 33.3 usage percentage is a career high and a six percent increase from last season, when he also led the Raptors. He is taking approximately one more field goal and two more free-throws per game, while assisting on 2.4 more baskets (his career-high 35.0 assist percentage is the highest mark of any “forward” in the league). Offensively, the Raptors are 13.9 points per 100 possessions better in the half court and 4.7 points per 100 possessions better in transition with Siakam on the court, helping prop up the fourth-best offence in the league through 10 games.
Plus, Siakam is rebounding 20.7 percent of opponent misses when he is on the floor, another career high. In summary, Siakam has been the team’s best rebounder, its best playmaker, and its best scorer, responsible for holding the offence together in both the half court and in transition. That is not going to be easy to replace, especially considering it was intentional in the first place.
Last season, with Siakam recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and rookie Scottie Barnes coming into the league, the Raptors didn’t exactly know how they were going to look. The coaches and front office were open about it being a year of trying different schemes and gathering data to see what worked and what didn’t. And by the end of the season, they learned what worked best was Siakam having the ball in his hands as much as possible.
This season, the Raptors built their team’s personnel and their systems around Siakam (or at the very least with Siakam in mind), showing confidence in him as the team’s primary scorer and a facilitator.
For example, they brought in Otto Porter Jr. to help with the spacing after the Philadelphia 76ers cramped the paint and Siakam didn’t have enough trustworthy shooters to pass to in the playoffs. Plus, the Raptors made Siakam their de facto point guard even when Fred VanVleet was on the floor, running the offence through him and using the pressure he put on the rim to free up shooters and cutters, with VanVleet’s usage falling from 25.8 to 20.7 percent.
“Probably a little bit [different than last season],” Nurse said of Siakam’s upcoming absence. “We had a lot of practice time, a lot of preseason, a lot of games to work into it [with him as the primary guy this year]. He has been such a focal point, played lots of minutes… It’s not like it’s totally foreign, but it is new at this point, for sure.”
VanVleet returned on Sunday evening in a 113-104 win against Chicago after missing three games with lower-back tightness, scoring 30 points and 11 assists. He picked up right where he left off the last time we saw him run the team (with the added wrinkle of having Christian Koloko as an effective pick-and-roll partner). But not every opponent is a great matchup for VanVleet.
O.G. Anunoby, who wanted a bigger offensive role coming into the season, has been in a great rhythm these past five games, averaging 20 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 4.2 steals and 1.0 blocks on 51/39/82 shooting splits. He will be asked to do more with the ball in his hands while continuing to stifle the opponent’s best offensive players, but his assist-to-turnover percentage has taken a dramatic drop this season, and he will need to be more careful with the ball.
Barnes will continue playing point guard, especially when VanVleet sits on the bench, and will need to be a more consistent two-way player over the course of 48 minutes, which is asking a lot of a 21-year-old. Gary Trent Jr. can take on more on-ball responsibility, too, but he has been at his best when playing off of Siakam rather than when trying to create himself.
Consider this: Toronto is turning opposing teams over on 19.4% of their offensive possessions this season when Koloko is on the court. That’s the highest clip for any individual Raptors player save for Otto Porter Jr. and Khem Birch who have both barely played this season. Conversely, teams are turning the ball over just 14.9% of the time when Koloko is off the court.
Christian Koloko’s on/off stats for opponent turnover %
Christian Koloko Opponent Turnover %
“Having Christian back there behind us helps a lot,” Anunoby said last week following his five-steal game against the San Antonio Spurs.
Moreover, with Koloko on the court, Toronto’s defense is averaging 12.3 steals per 100 possessions, again, the highest rate for any player aside from Porter and Birch.
Koloko a Stingy Paint Deterrent
All that aggressiveness would be for naught if Toronto’s untimely gambles just turned into points in the paint for the opposing team. This season, though, Koloko has been tasked with erasing those mistakes and keeping the Raptors’ defense clamping down even in rotation.
So far, the numbers have been staggering. Opposing teams are shooting just 55.6% within six feet of the rim when Koloko is the nearest defender, 7.9% better than when he’s not defending the shot. Teams are also averaging just 37.3 points in the paint per 100 possession when Koloko is on the court, the best mark on the team aside from Birch. Conversely, teams are averaging 47.6 points in the paint per 100 possessions when he’s off the court.
Christian Koloko’s defensive impact per 100 possessions
Christian Koloko Opponent Points in the Paint
Impact on the Team
Taken together, Koloko’s impact has been shocking for a player still in the early stages of his developmental curve. When he’s on the court this season, Toronto has a defensive rating of 96.5. For comparison, the Milwaukee Bucks currently lead the NBA with a defensive rating of 100.6. When Koloko sits, that number skyrockets to 115.1, a defensive rating equivalent to the Indiana Pacers’ who rank 26th in the league in defense.
Christian Koloko’s On/Off Defensive Rating
Christian Koloko Defensive Rating
It hasn’t always been pretty for Koloko who is still averaging three personal fouls per game despite averaging just 17 minutes. That, though, should get better with experience. For now, Koloko has been a revelation for Toronto, locking down the paint and allowing everyone else to ratchet up the pressure a notch or two.