The starters had to be better, and they were. And the bench was even better than that.
Thus the Toronto Raptors looked really, really good for most of their 119-114 win over the Chicago Bulls, which was more dramatic down the stretch than it needed to be, but then again consistency hasn’t been the Raptors’ trademark yet this season.
Through 10 games the Raptors (6-4) are still in transition, trying to resist the lure of their old ways while occasionally glimpsing what kind of team they can be.
“I categorize this game tonight as a win is a win,” said Kyle Lowry after the game. “It wasn’t how we wanted to close it out but a win is a win. The offence is getting better; we are just continuing to grow and we will continue to get better at it.”
Against the Bulls (2-7), a rebuilding team with one player worth building on – rookie Lauri Markkanen – that vision was illuminated in bright neon, with fireworks.
For the second time this season – both at Air Canada Centre – the Raptors looked like the 2014 San Antonio Spurs against Chicago.
If the Bulls were even a little bit better that might offer some substance on which to base a conclusion or even a hang a weak premise on, but the Bulls are trying to tank before the NBA’s new anti-tanking rules kick in so they don’t offer enough resistance to even test a theory.
Probably the best you can say is that the Raptors – their starters in particular – chose not to overlook Chicago and instead seemed determined to put their collective no-show against the Washington Wizards behind them.
The Raptors entered the game Tuesday night ranked 23rd in plus/minus in the first quarter this season, compared to seventh overall. A year ago Toronto was 16th in plus/minus in the first quarter compared with fifth for the entire game.
“It’s a bad habit because if you go ahead and dig yourself a hole it’s hard to dig out in this league. It’s very difficult,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey before the game. “So it’s mental, I don’t think it’s anything to do with physical or warmups or anything like that. It’s something that traditionally we’ve done, which is a bad habit. …
“It’s very difficult to put your finger on it but it’s coming out of the locker room ready to go and not waiting until you get punched in the mouth to start competing and getting a lather going and that type of thing,” he said. “Again, it’s a phenomenon. You can make numbers say whatever you want them to say but it’s all about coming out and competing in the first quarter.”
The numbers weren’t all that impressive early against Chicago – Toronto led 29-26 after 12 minutes – but the effort was notable.
Kyle Lowry (17 points, six assists), whose early-season funk has been a talking point, seemed determined to put his stamp on the game early as he took his first touch and drove the ball the length of the floor for a score. DeMar DeRozan (24 points and 2-of-2 from three) can ease his way into things with the best of them but didn’t against Chicago as he was quick to help and cut off the baseline on a Justin Holiday drive and then offered some strong resistance from the weak side although he was ultimately called for a foul on Bobby Portis – playing his first game for the Bulls since being suspended for punching teammate Nikola Mirotic in a pre-season fight.
“You’re always eager to get back out there and redeem yourself after a loss,” said DeRozan. “For us it was about coming out with energy, being aggressive at both ends. You still have to do it for 48 minutes.”
Lowry scored three field goals in the first quarter and all of them were on drives straight at the rim. It says a lot about the Bulls defence, certainly, but also about the Raptors’ mindset. Nothing was being taken for granted.
But then came the second unit and the Bulls – who are talent deprived to begin with – were largely overwhelmed. Defensively Chicago was stifled as various combinations of Delon Wright, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam began flying around. Chicago was held to 40 per cent shooting and just 1-of-6 from three.
Meanwhile the Raptors feasted on six Bulls turnovers and had the ball zinging around, each pass finding someone more open than the last. On one sequence, Siakam made a touch catch in the paint on a roll, gathered himself, fired a laser through traffic to Anunoby in the corner who pinged it to Wright who made a touch pass back to a wide-open Anunoby who made the three.
On another Norm Powell threw a pass to Dwane Casey.
“Just trying to find the best shot,” said Powell. “I think there was a possession or two where we passed up like three or four open shots, and I think I turned the ball over once not shooting it and trying to find K-Low open. But I think it’s a good thing to see that we’re sharing the ball and the ball’s moving, now it’s just taking the shots that are available.
Regardless of the opponent, that has been the missing element as the early returns on the Raptors’ re-tooled offence trickle in. There have been plenty of open threes created by ball movement and spacing but not enough possessions have ended with made shots.
That has not been the case against Chicago. The Raptors have shot horribly from deep against teams not from Chicago – just 60-for-240, or 25 per cent. Against the Bulls? They’re the Warriors, as Toronto shot 13-of-25 on Tuesday and are now shooting 49 per cent from three in two games against Chicago.
The Raptors led 98-81 after three quarters, were shooting 62 per cent from the floor, had made 13 threes and had 20 assists on 36 field goals.
You have to be really careless to lose a game when you’re shooting that well, but the Raptors did get sloppy, surrendering a 15-4 run after an Anunoby three – his second of the night – with 8:28 to play that had given the Raptors a 17-point lead.
But perhaps feeling like the work was done, the Raptors let the Bulls back in the game, surrendering a 15-4 run that cut the lead to six. When Portis scored the last of his 21 points – 14 in the fourth quarter – the Bulls had pulled within three.
“The hardest thing to do in this league is hold a lead,” said Casey. “You get a big lead and you think the game’s over, you turn it off mentally and that’s exactly what we did tonight.”
A tough DeRozan jumper with 20.3 seconds left stemmed the tide and a pair of free throws sealed it.
It wasn’t a thing of beauty – allowing the Bulls to dictate the terms in the fourth quarter won’t go over well – but there was enough in there regardless of the opponent that Toronto can tell themselves they’re making progress.