After losing 11 games in a row to the Bulls, there was a strain of thought suggesting the Raptors could only break the streak in one of two ways: a massive blowout, or a nail-biter. There was no way Toronto could beat Chicago by merely modest means. Not this team, the one that has bedeviled the Raptors for the past three years, not after all that has happened. No, this Bulls team would require a literal fight, something approaching a spiritual exorcism, to defeat. So, the nail-biter then.
Despite a lacklustre half of basketball, with a lead that got as big as 16 for Chicago, against all odds, the Toronto Raptors finally did it. They beat the Bulls in overtime, 122-120. Toronto outscored Chicago 34-19 in the final frame — with mostly bench players — took a lead for the first time in the 52nd minute, and managed to execute down the stretch. This was a miraculous outcome.
For my money, it is also the most satisfying regular season win I’ve ever seen live. And it has to rank somewhere up there in most fun, satisfying and all-out spectacular wins in franchise history. Sure, it was ugly and dispiriting for long stretches; we had to watch Rajon Rondo rack up 19 first half points, and later stare in horror as Paul Zipser dunked on Serge Ibaka and canned two unlikely 3s. The subsequent Ibaka-Robin Lopez brouhaha that broke out in the third got the Raptors fired up, but it also got both ejected with likely suspensions to follow. (Bright side: Ibaka said he was “fine,” so there’s no injury worry.) There were a lot of emotional ups and downs, is my point. And this makes for grand entertainment.
“It got us going, something like [the fight] happening,” said DeMar DeRozan. “The crowd got into it. And our fans love things like that, especially with it being a hockey city. So they got a little excitement out of that, and it got us going.”
That it did. DeRozan was masterful tonight, shooting a ton, but making plays on both ends of the court. He finished with 42 points on 17-for-38, with 8 assists and 7 rebounds (including four on the offensive end). DeRozan also had one of the most astounding weak side blocks he’s ever had in his career, along with one of the more breathtaking steals — a half-court sprint in behind Rondo to poke the ball away and ignite a break the other way. “We needed everything,” said DeRozan. “Every scrap that we could pull outta there. It wasn’t about plays at that point, it was about who wanted it more.”
After Ibaka’s ejection, it was unclear who on the Raptors did want it more. To that point, Ibaka had 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting, along with 6 rebounds. He looked generally untroubled by whoever the Bulls were throwing at him. Outside of Serge and DeRozan, the Raptors were in tough. At the 7:03 mark of the fourth, after sitting a time while Toronto treaded water, DeRozan officially re-entered the game. Approximately 30 seconds later the Raptors were down by 15. The table was set for DeRozan, Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet, Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker to scrap the rest of the way — all 12 minutes — to the win.
“One thing is, that’s the way we gotta play,” said coach Dwane Casey, in his endless mission to push his team towards some kind of consistent effort. “We can’t come out and play like we did in the first three quarters. Here’s a team that kicked our butts for the last 11 games, and I was really disappointed how we started the game, and ecstatic about how we finished it. That’s the way we have to play.”
The final six minutes and overtime were like a fever dream — for Casey, surely, but also for us. The shots started falling — the usual array of jumpers and floaters from DeRozan, a pair of threes from Tucker, and a couple plays from Joseph — and the defense was dialled in. For their parts, Tucker and Joseph finished with 8 and 19 points, respectively, and felt like they were everywhere on the court. Likewise VanVleet chipped in with two steals and six points, while hounding Rondo relentlessly. And let’s not forget Patterson and his monster putback to put the Raptors up 4 in the dying seconds. The Bulls could always come back to life — with Butler looming, anything is possible — but that felt like the final shovel of dirt on the grave. Joseph iced it with a jumper moments later.
“What we needed was just a toughness,” said Tucker. “Picking guys up, making them turn the ball over. When you sit back and let teams move the ball, get in their offense, you’re not going to get any stops, you’re not going to turn the momentum.” Tucker has a way of saying things that suggest it’s just a matter of doing it — a decision of willpower. The Raptors were down 16 at one point, and by 15 late. They hadn’t beat the Bulls since 2013. But they banded together anyway, and showed a certain toughness.
And look at that, they did indeed turn the momentum. The curse is officially, emphatically, broken. One of 82, sure, but it certainly feels like more than that.