The Raptors have won three straight games against the Bulls dating back to last season. To almost anyone else, this is no big deal — teams do this all the time. But to Raptors fans, this is cause for celebration. Once upon a time, the Raptors lost eleven times in a row to the Bulls. It was a curse, it was a mystery, it was endlessly maddening.
And now, with a new streak building in the Raptors’ favour, we wonder: when will the other shoe drop?
The Bulls, if you’ve been paying attention, have been on something of an inexplicable tear as of late. They won seven games in a row, and have won 10 of their last 14, which is not nothing. They’re actively sticking their fingers in the eye of a full-scale tanking project, those Bulls. And, sure, kudos to them — but also, please get out of the Raptors’ way and enough with the dang hexes.
Here are the details so far for tonight’s Raptors-Bulls matchup.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet One, 8pm
Raptors - Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Bulls - Kris Dunn, Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine, Lauri Markkanen, Robin Lopez
Raptors - Noooooooobody!
Bulls - Cameron Payne (foot), Zach LaVine (knee)
How Are They Doing It?
Despite those recent wins, this Bulls team is still ranked a brutal 29th in offensive rating, and a poor 19th in defensive rating. They’ve put themselves in quite a hole after losing 20 of their first 23 games. And yet, as mentioned, they’re now a danger on the court — but how?
For the last month, with only the reintegration of Nikola Mirotic, they’ve jumped up to 14th in offensive ranking and 5th (?!) in defensive ranking. This somehow gives them the sixth best net ranking over that same period, which feels insane. (The Raptors are second in the league over that time period which is correct — and fun and good.)
There’s no doubt adding Mirotic helps the Bulls on offense. After missing the first 23 (there’s that number again) games of the season, Mirotic is leading the team in scoring with 18.3 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field, and 47 percent (?!) from three. Still, it’s been the Bulls defense — spearheaded by the dynamic (sure, why not) Kris Dunn, the furious Bobby Portis, and the relentless Robin Lopez — that’s kept teams at bay.
How will Toronto respond? Well, one imagines the Raptors will have to remember they have the fourth best offense in the league, and leave it at that.
Dunn and the Finnisher
Aside from sounding like the title for a great 70’s comedy action film, Dunn and Markkanen have made quite an impression in Chicago as of late. I hate to type these words — we were supposed to be done with the Bulls this season! The Raptors smashed one weird vibe, and now may end up battling another.
Anyway, the Bulls second and third leading scorers are now a rookie forward from Finland, and a guard who was once thought to be already on the downslope of his young career. Over the past upswing month, Dunn and Markkanen have averaged 15.8 and 15.6 points per game, respectively, along with 8.1 assists (for Dunn) and 6.5 rebounds (for Markkanen). Not bad for two young guns.
When combined with the aforementioned Portis and his weirdly effective advanced stats — he somehow has the best offensive and defensive rating on the team in 19 minutes per game — the Bulls are suddenly... sort of effective? I hate this.
Remember Your Game
As always when playing demonstrably worse teams, the Raptors need to remember who they are. On Monday they played a Bucks team stocked with the same long-armed monsters that almost derailed them a year before. The outcome seemed in doubt, and it looked like the Raptors were ready to fold.
Instead, as regulation ended, Toronto made a strong run to tie it up, and then blew the Bucks away in overtime. There were a couple of reasons for this: first was, of course, the mega-force game from DeRozan, who dropped 52 efficient points. Second, and perhaps most important, the Raptors made actual plays down the stretch. Yes, they could always just hand the ball to DeMar to make something happen — and when a guy is cooking like that, you might as well — but the memorable and satisfying plays also came when almost every Raptor touched the ball.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
This is on the shortlist of my favourite Lowry sequences ever. Middleton got puunnnnnked.... twice. pic.twitter.com/0X9jaqNa9l— Sean Woodley (@WoodleySean) January 2, 2018
After Lowry’s tremendous defense in the post, the ball ends up in DeRozan’s hands. He gets trapped — and even on the re-watch, I get nervous — but look at that, instead of steering the whole team into a ditch, DeRozan splits the double team and passes it. Fred VanVleet makes a few circling moves, and then finds Kyle Lowry on the wing, who makes his own move to the basket. This was just beautiful basketball, and it suggests a composed ceiling for these Raptors that didn’t quite exist last year.
Whatever happens with the cursed Bulls tonight, remember this possession. Play your game, Toronto.