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Raptors almost blow it, hang on to beat Bulls 119-114

The second Raptors-Bulls meeting of the year was, somehow, a much closer affair than the first.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

This was supposed to be a recap in which I copy-and-pasted large chunks of the one I wrote for the Raptors’ 117-100 win on opening night in hopes that no one would notice. For three quarters, this game was eerily similar to the Raptors-Bulls match-up of three-ish weeks ago.

Then the fourth quarter happened, so I guess we have to address that.

After 36 minutes of gorgeous, egalitarian Raptors offense and a predictable storm of bricks being conjured by the Bulls, Toronto’s one-time 23-point lead vaporized through a combination of dual-ended passiveness and Bobby Portis deciding it was time to get some buckets.

Everything the Raptors did well in order to built their healthy cushion ceased as the fourth quarter progressed. In the fast-paced first quarter, the starting five played possibly its best stretch of the young season. Jonas Valanciunas was a terror on the roll. Kyle Lowry’s energy was palpable. Even Serge Ibaka, struggling of late, chipped in some in-rhythm offense that has been lacking from his spurts with the starters.

As the reserves funneled onto the court, they did much of the same joyous things they’ve done all season -- they ran, they passed (at times perhaps even a little too much, amazingly), they canned all of the freaking threes, and they transformed defense into arena-inspiring offense.

Listlessness crept into the defense in the third quarter. But the Raptors passed and scored with the same verve they’ve achieved in their finest moments this season. DeMar DeRozan, whose first half mirrored the searching and unsure effort he produced in the season-opener, had himself a quarter out of the gate in the second half.

Included in the 12 points and three assists he tallied in the third: a pair of Lowry-style pull-up threes coming around screens, a beautiful drive-and-kick dime to a waiting Ibaka in the left corner, and a couple of his trademark 12-foot solo efforts. It seemed as though he’d struck the balance he’d been searching for back on October 19th:

DeRozan appears to be the furthest away from finding his comfort zone in the new offense. He wasn’t bad in the opener, per se. Toronto need didn’t more than his 11 points, six boards and five assists. The five turnovers he picked up do suggest some friction, though, as he tries to alter his long-standing identity on the fly.

“You’re asking him to try to do something against his nature, which he’s trying to do for the team,” said Dwane Casey after the game. “While our other guys, they have to play that way ... We may have two different styles, or semi-styles. I loved the way we played. We’ve gotta play that way. But again we’ve gotta find a niche for Deebo, and to find his scoring niche within what we’re doing.” — (From Oct. 19th’s recap)

All of the good was washed away as the Bulls made the game far more interesting than it ought to have been. You could play off Chicago’s slight narrowing of the deficit early in the fourth to good ol’ fashioned garbage time complacency by Toronto. The second unit was in, and not screwing up in any sort of cataclysmic way. Bobby Portis, playing in his first game since rearranging Nikola Mirotic’s face, just kind of started to heat up.

At first, it seemed benign. But as the Raptors’ offense got stickier (thanks in large part to DeRozan), and Portis added to his 14-point total in the frame, the comeback effort felt more threatening.

Casey’s move to re-insert the starters midway through the quarter exacerbated the problem. If there’s a silver lining to the hairy finish, it’s that more fuel was added to the “Ibaka and Valanciunas can’t play important minutes together” discourse. Casey picked up on the front court’s incoherence after a couple minutes, slotting Pascal Siakam in for Valanciunas, ending his otherwise solid 21 and 10 night.

And then came the near meltdown from DeRozan. With the score 115-109 with just 71 seconds to go, Kris Dunn picked DeRozan’s pocket; his reaction to the perceived non-call likely would have seen him tossed if Sunday’s ref crew was on the job at the ACC once again. Had he been issued a technical foul for slamming the ball down in the airspace of the official, maybe we’re talking about a completed Bulls comeback.

Ultimately, the Raptors’ shot-makers bailed them out. But it wasn’t exactly a moment of jubilation when a DeRozan turnaround jumper all but sealed it at 117-112. It was more a half-hearted punch than a dagger to Chicago’s gut.

You can take issue with the stagnant late-game offense, or the decision to play Valanciunas and Ibaka as the Bulls’ run started to escalate in the fourth — you know, all the same notes angsty fans hit after most Raptors games.

Ultimately, this was a win. Was it an irritating, maybe even unsatisfying one considering all the promising signs the Raptors showed over the first three quarters? Yeah, probably. But aside from the usual complaints, nothing the Raptors did poorly screamed out “systemic and team-threatening.” It’s smart to pick your battles selectively. Tuesday night’s poor finish feels like one of those times where it’s best to save some energy and look ahead to the next game instead of dwelling on the last.