Depending on your view of what has turned into a weird season for the Toronto Raptors, facing the Chicago Bulls wasn’t quite a season-defining moment – there are still 20 games left to play, after all – but it was one of those potential turning points that does help shine a light on the future a little more clearly.
And in that sense, it was a win-win.
The Raptors quite predictably were handled, 122-113, by the Chicago Bulls in a showdown between the 10th and 11th place teams in the Eastern Conference.
It was an acceptable outcome, regardless of what many believe is the preferred outcome for the remainder of the Raptors' season: push to find their way into the playoffs or throw themselves to the draft lottery Gods.
For those that would like to see Toronto pick in the top-eight (or better) of the draft for the first time since 2012, the Raptors' second-straight loss dropped them to 20-32 on the year and, more significantly, three games behind the Bulls (22-28) for 10th place – the final position for the play-in tournament. Not helping their cause is that the Bulls now own the tie-breaker between the two teams.
For those that believe the goal should be to win, get in and take their chances, there is comfort that Toronto didn’t lose as much as they simply didn’t have the manpower available for the job.
The Raptors were up against it. In addition to missing Fred VanVleet (hip flexor), Kyle Lowry (toe infection), Rodney Hood (hip flexor), Paul Watson (health-and-safety protocols), Patrick McCaw (knee) and Jalen Harris (hip pointer), the team learned Thursday that DeAndre' Bembry would miss the game after being suspended for coming off the bench to play peacemaker when OG Anunoby sparked a fracas with the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.
The Raptors did sign G-League big Freddie Gillespie to a 10-day contract, but he won’t be available for another few days due to testing and quarantine requirements. There were reports that Montreal big man Khem Birch has plans to sign with Toronto after getting bought out by Orlando, but there is no timeline on that yet.
So the Raptors were rolling with eight, the NBA minimum.
“I told the team, 'no ejections tonight,'” head coach Nick Nurse said. “Especially in the first quarter, we can't afford them. We need everybody to try to get from start to finish tonight. We'll give it a go.”
The Raptors did that. Even while being so shorthanded — and trailing by double figures from early on in the second quarter and by as many as 22 midway through the third — they never really went away.
Chris Boucher certainly wasn’t having it. He finished with career-highs of 38 points and 19 rebounds – one rebound short of what would have been the first 30-20 game in franchise history – and put together a nine-point spurt in a two-minute stretch that cut the Bulls' lead to seven with 2:51 to play, but that was as close as Toronto could get.
It was a version of what Nurse was hoping for before the game.
“I mean, I know there's a lot at stake but when you're playing with only eight and missing a bunch of guys you’ve got to kind of try to relax them a little bit and obviously, we got off to a great start, we were ready to go, energy was awesome.,” said Nurse. “And again, like we talked about, I think they hung in. [It] got away from us there for a bit and we battled all the way back to having a chance actually, we were getting stop after stop after stop down to seven and with a couple 3 balls that didn't go on, we could have got a really made it really interesting there.
“But, yeah, I mean it's unfortunate, the schedule and the injuries and suspensions and COVID and all that stuff is not great timing for this game of this magnitude.”
The Bulls shot 54 per cent from the floor and 40 per cent from three, while the Raptors shot 43 and 33 per cent, respectively.
Refreshingly, the Raptors more than held their own on the boards, with Boucher’s nine offensive rebounds helping give Toronto a rare – for them – edge in second-chance points at 17-11.
“… I feel like if I come earlier into the game ready with a mindset of 'I can't let myself get bullied' it really helps me out to move my feet,” Boucher said. “[I’m] trying to get to a point where it's a problem to get the ball and I just want to be disruptive. And I feel like lately it's been helping me out, especially knowing that we get out-rebounded, so every game I try to get as many rebounds as I can and I think that's my job: Defend, get the rebound and whenever I get the opportunity to score I score the ball, too.”
In addition to Boucher’s explosion, Pascal Siakam was outstanding, attacking the Bulls' defence off the dribble at every chance on his way to 27 points and eight rebounds on 10-of-17 shooting. And while Malachi Flynn was only 3-of-11 from the floor, he finished with eight assists – a career high – two steals and just two turnovers as he continues to show he can more than hold his own with the heavy minutes he’s getting in the absence of VanVleet and Lowry.
Still, the Bulls were in nearly complete control throughout the game, pushing a six-point lead after the first quarter to 13 at half.
But Boucher and Siakam did their best to try and reel in the Bulls, combining for 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the third quarter, but they had no one following their example.
The Bulls had extended their lead to 22 before Toronto made one more push and cut Chicago’s advantage down to 13 again with 1:44 in the third, which was as close as they got before Boucher’s late flurry.
But there wasn’t enough help to keep pulling on the rope. After Boucher and Siakam, the other three starters – Anunoby, Flynn and Aron Baynes – were a combined 10-of-42, and while the Bulls got 47 from their bench, which head coach Billy Donovan limited to three players, Toronto’s three-man bench could only give 20 in response.
Zach LaVine led them with 22 points and 13 assists.
The Bulls were in more of a no-lose situation. Chicago was one of the most aggressive teams at the NBA trade deadline as they traded away two first-round picks and a recent lottery pick, Wendell Carter Jr., to acquire 29-year-old all-star Nikola Vucevic from Orlando. They also added Daniel Theis from Boston and Troy Brown Jr. from Washington.
It was a win-now move but was initially slow to pay dividends, as the Bulls lost their first four games before righting the ship with wins over Brooklyn and Indiana ahead of travelling to Tampa to play the Raptors.
“It's kind of pushing all your chips in,” Nurse said. “You're serious about your team, and you're serious about making the playoffs and playing in the post-season when you make trades like that at the deadline.”
It’s hard to argue the Raptors did the same in trading away Norman Powell – even if Gary Trent Jr. looks like a nice pick up. Toronto has done nothing to address a clear lacking at centre that was evident from the moment they broke training camp.
Still, there remains a belief that if they ever get healthy, they are a team that can make some noise if they get into the playoffs by hook or by crook.
“[But] … I'm still in the mindset of try to get in and continue to build and hopefully get some guys back in and get that team to continue to improve and build, and then, I don't know, who's to say you're not really hard to beat four times if you can get through the play-in and get in a seven-game series?” said Nurse. “I don't shy away from playing anybody in a seven-game series.”
Failing that, a top-eight draft pick would be acceptable compensation, many would agree, and maybe even preferable.
Both dreams remain alive, though with their loss to the Bulls the Raptors chances of getting lucky in the lottery are gaining ground.