It began innocuously on February 19, 2014 in a tightly contested game. It was an unfortunate loss for the Raptors, but after a trade brought an influx of players and talent, the season was turning around. This was just one of three losses over a 10-game stretch, an off night in a season full of modest ups and downs. Toronto was now 29-25 after losing to the Chicago Bulls, 94-92. The team shook it off and moved on.
But this was no ordinary game. No, on that particular night, the Raptors were cursed.
At the time, we all had no idea. The Raptors had split the season series with the Bulls that year, 2-2. In fact, Toronto had actually blown them out earlier in the season. A loss to the Bulls carried no more importance to the Raptors than almost any other. Both teams were in the middle of the Eastern Conference looking to make moves; it was all a part of the game.
But then, the impossible: the losses kept coming. Four straight the following year, the 2014-15 season, as the Raptors took turns getting cooked by late period Pau Gasol (27 points on Nov. 13, 2014), even later period Aaron Brooks (17 points on Dec. 22, 2014), rookie Nikola Mirotic (29 points on Mar. 20, 2015), and the generally bad Tony Snell (17 points on Mar. 25, 2015). There were constants here of course — Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, et al — but the outcome always seemed the same, even as the Bulls remade their roster. Even as Chicago got worse as a team, sinking down the Eastern Conference standings, Toronto was helpless to stop them.
In 2015-16, the Raptors had never flown higher. The team was expecting great things after a disappointing post-season run that past spring. We know the history by now: 56 wins, an ugly but exciting run to the Eastern Conference Finals. And, somehow, four more straight losses to the Bulls. Get a load of these lines:
- 51 combined points from Brooks, Snell and rookie Bobby Portis in a 104-97 loss on December 28, 2015;
- A career-high 42 points from Butler, who goes off for 40 in the second half to single-handedly beat the Raptors 115-113 on January 3, 2016;
- Doug McDermott — I repeat, Doug McDermott — goes for 30 a 116-106 win over the Raptors on February 19, 2016;
- McDermott again — let me repeat this for the fourth time: Doug McDermott killed the Raptors two times in a row and I can’t believe I’m typing this, even in retrospect — goes off, this time for 29 points as the Bulls beat the Raptors 109-107.
This version of the Bulls finished 40-42 on the season and failed to make the playoffs. The Raptors, as mentioned, were soaring. And yet, strike by some insidious internal rot (or a hex?), continued to be unable to best the team from Chicago. It defies logic and comprehension.
It is now the 2016-17 season and the Raptors’ season has been a tad all over the map. Up early, then a prolonged slump, reinforced by trades but also missing their best player, Toronto is a team in search of itself. As of late, the Raptors have reinvented themselves as a defensive powerhouse (third in the league in defensive rating since the All-Star break) with a deep roster of useful players. They’ve gone 8-5 over that stretch, even without Kyle Lowry. It suggests good things.
But the curse is still undefeated. The Raptors of 2016-17 have already lost to the Bulls twice. First in excruciating fashion on January 7, 2017, as Butler and his 42 points leads a comeback to kill the Raps again, this time in overtime. (Fun fact: McDermott chipped in 17 points in this one, along with 20 from the dark arts master Dwyane Wade.) Second, a follow-up loss on February 14, 2017 — charmingly referred to as the Valentine’s Day Massacre — by a score of 105-94. McDermott leads the Bulls with 20 points. I am numb and dead to the world.
Now, my friends, we arrive at today. The Raptors have lost 11 straight games to the Chicago Bulls. Over that stretch, Toronto has gotten demonstrably better as a franchise, and the Bulls have gotten significantly worse. Their organization is in shambles, they’ve made a surfeit of bad trades while also turning the controls over to malcontents; they almost shipped off their best player and blew it all up. McDermott has mercifully been shipped out of Chicago. Wade is injured for the rest of the season. The team is mix-and-matching lineups in an attempt to find something that works. They’re 3-7 over their last 10 games, 33-37 overall, in tenth place and dropping fast. For goodness sake, they’re relying on a dude named Paul Zipser. No way can you get dunked on by a guy named Paul Zipser. It can’t happen. It just cannot be.
My point is: the curse must be broken today. It must be. The unholy bonds that keep the Raptors from claiming victory over the team from Chicago must be broken. The basketball universe — nay, the straight-up universe — must right itself.
This is the moment of truth.