It would take a while to list all the ways the Raptors have been snake-bitten this season. Playing in Tampa and dealing with the pandemic have been the two biggest issues, but that’s really just scratching the surface.
Thursday felt like a microcosm of the entire season, in that sense. Already down two starters in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, the Raptors learned early in the day that a scuffle between OG Anunoby and Dennis Schröder in their Tuesday game against the Lakers would result in suspensions — but not to those in the fracas. Both DeAndre’ Bembry and Fred VanVleet were given a one-game penalty for leaving the Raptors’ bench, a punishment well-known in the NBA but not often handed out.
This hurt the Raptors quite a bit, because it was just one more thing to add to a pile of issues. While VanVleet will serve his suspension when he’s healthy, the lack of Bembry meant that the Raptors had just eight bodies to play against the Bulls tonight. That meant, even with two sensational individual performances, they couldn’t muster enough to beat Chicago, losing 122-113 after a spirited effort.
The loss puts Toronto two games back of Chicago for the tenth seed and final spot in the play in tournament.
That’s enough despondence, though. Let’s talk about the positives — namely, Chris Boucher. After a streak of disappointing performances where his shot went wayward and his defensive mistakes were more pronounced, Boucher put together his best performance of the season on both ends. Scoring 38 points and grabbing 19 rebounds, the Montreal native came just a board short of becoming the first player in franchise history to record a 30-20 game.
The issues with Boucher are well-known. He’s often struggled this season to get on the glass against larger bodies, and the Raptors have needed him to compete there because the other option at centre is (bleh) Aron Baynes. Tonight, he was excellent against both Nikola Vucevic and Daniel Theis, as his activity level earned him ten defensive boards and nine offensive — out-working both Chicago bigs on so many possessions.
That dominance in the frontcourt extended to another good performance from Pascal Siakam. Scoring 27 points on just 17 shots, Siakam continued an excellent stretch of basketball where he’s anchored Toronto’s thin roster. Able to get eight rebounds of his own, Siakam has not settled for the outside shot that’s eluded him since the bubble last fall. Instead, he’s attacked the rim with regularity, and showed awesome finishing ability.
The Raptors did lose the game, though, and it ultimately came down to lack of production outside of Boucher and Siakam.
The starting backcourt of Malachi Flynn and Gary Trent Jr. combined to go 5-for-25 from the field. The absence of Trent (2-for-14) became really pronounced as the evening went on, as the young guard’s shot selection looked increasingly poor. Toronto still needs time for Trent Jr. to get acclimated (and more help appears on the way in the form of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie), but one area of improvement should be giving up the early shot clock three for something more efficient — a common issue tonight.
OG Anunoby ended up being the only other Raptor to score in double digits with 13, but needed 17 shots to get there. Toronto’s bench — Yuta Watanabe, Stanley Johnson, and Baynes — combined for just 14 points, compared to 47 pine points for the Bulls.
The Bulls did only play nine players, one more than Toronto, but the depth in talent was more important than strength in numbers. Lauri Markkanen had 18 points on 8-for-10 shooting off the bench, while the team was led by 22 points each for Vucevic (9-for-19) and Zach LaVine (8-for-16). LaVine was also excellent setting up his teammates with 13 assists, as four other Bulls scored in double figures and the team shot 54 percent from the field overall.
At the outset, the Raptors looked like their initial energy might win the day. Taking an 11-4 lead on a perfect 3-for-3 start from Boucher, the Raptors initiated themselves well. Both Boucher and OG Anunoby made life tough for Vucevic’s first looks and the game started with the hallmarks of a bounce back performance.
Chicago would answer quickly, though, and showed resolve coming out of timeouts throughout the game. It started with a 9-0 spurt midway through the first quarter to tie the game at 16, but throughout the game it seemed like every Billy Donovan timeout resulted in an extended Chicago run. Every time the Raptors gained momentum, Chicago ably stomped it out.
The Bulls opened up their first double-digit lead in the second quarter, as the Raptors mustered only two points in the first three minutes with their bench on the floor. Without Flynn or Siakam out there, Toronto really didn’t have anyone to initiate offense. Though Anunoby and Trent Jr. made their best effort, the misses added up along with Chicago’s lead. With the Bulls up 51-31 at one point in the frame and headed into halftime up 64-51, the Raptors had their work cut out for them.
A couple short rallies followed in the second half, mostly started by Boucher or Siakam, but the best push came towards the end of the game. Boucher and Flynn hit back-to-back threes after the four-minute mark to cut Chicago’s lead to ten. A Boucher floater shortly after cut it to eight. Two missed threes, though, squandered the opportunity, and Zach LaVine ultimately put the nail in with a triple of his own with 45 seconds left, sealing the Raptors’ fate.
The road doesn’t get easier from here. Another four games in five nights stretch awaits Toronto starting Saturday, when they’ll take on the Cavaliers on the road.