The Toronto Raptors had their work cut out for them on Sunday afternoon, facing the high-scoring DeMar DeRozan and his Chicago Bulls — while missing their best player, Pascal Siakam.
But Fred VanVleet made his return to the lineup after missing three games, and that made all the difference.
VanVleet scored 30 points and shot 7-for-13 from downtown, while dishing 11 assists and grabbing five rebounds (and only committing one turnover).
DeMar DeRozan managed to score 20 points on just 9 shots — hitting 7 of them — but was stifled by an aggressive trapping scheme spearheaded by O.G. Anunoby.
When DeRozan checked back in to the game with 8 minutes to go and the two teams neck-and-neck, I figured this game was gonna come down to DeMar doing his thing all fourth quarter long — getting to his spots, cashing in on pump-fakes, probably adding a couple and-1s to boot.
Trailing 97-96 with six minutes to go, the Raptors needed to put the clamps on DeMar — and find a way to score enough points to make up the difference. And they did both!
Anunoby never let DeRozan get out of arm’s length, and although DeRozan did drop in one and-1, he couldn’t get anything going and the Raptors slowly stretched the lead, going on a 9-2 run to lead 107-99 with 2:16 to go. Then, up 109-102, the aggressive D forced a Bulls turnover, and VanVleet found Anunoby downcourt where O.G. unloaded an insane reverse jam to seal the game.
After the game, Nick Nurse mentioned the high volume of traps was a specific game plan for DeMar, and a complex one too. It didn’t always work — the trap did lead to a number of easy buckets when the Bulls managed to get the ball behind the defense — but as Nurse says, in that scheme, you’re gonna take some things away and sacrifice some others — you just have to hope it’s more of the former.
Christian Koloko was a revalation for Toronto in this one, as he blocked 6 shots to go along with 11 points and 7 boards. But more than the numbers, it was he different dimension that Koloko added to the offense that made an impact. The Raptors just haven’t had a traditional rolling big man since Serge Ibaka left (well, OK, there was Aron Baynes, but, well, that didn’t work out so well).
Tonight, the Raptors ran VanVleet-Koloko pick and rolls multiple times down the floor, over and over. It didn’t always lead to buckets, but it did open things up quite a bit. After the game, both Nurse and VanVleet called out the difference as well; having a roll (and lob) threat forces the defense into more drop coverage, opening up the floor and getting the ball moving.
Koloko chided himself after the game that he probably robbed Barnes and VanVleet of several assists when he didn’t finish plays strong, and indicated that’s a growth opportunity for him — to know when to go up strong and dunk, or at least try to dunk, as he’s not going to get “easy foul calls” from NBA officials.
The game started on a funny note as coach Nurse called a coach’s challenge just 98 seconds into the game, after VanVleet was called for and-1 foul on DeMar. The challenge was successful, but the bucket still counted; post-game, Nick said it was so obvious that Fred didn’t touch DeMar that he had to call it, and he also wanted to set the tone with the officials that he didn’t want to see DeMar with a parade of and-1s.
Overall, though, the Raptors simply weren’t crisp in the first. They were a step slow on defense and the Siakam-less offense was discombobulated. Koloko was the lone early bright spot, blocking three shots in the frame.
a look at all of @kolokojunior1 blocks so far ⤵️ https://t.co/hNWL183oYd pic.twitter.com/fnJC1xy5v5— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 6, 2022
Goran Dragic entered the game late in the fourth to a smattering of boos; Raptors fans do have long memories! The Bulls won the frame 30-21.
The second quarter didn’t start great, either; the Raptors gave open threes to Dragic and Patrick Williams, putting Chicago up 36-23. But the offense started to click after that; Boucher, bringing the energy as usual, grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back in for two, and Scottie muscled his way to the rim and scored (and probably should have gotten the and-1, too). Gary Trent also dropped in a floater, but it wasn’t until Thaddeus Young came in that things really started to turn around.
First, a VanVleet drive-and-kick led to an open Barnes three; then, with Thad in, Barnes started working the post a little more, and returned the favour to Freddy, finding VanVleet for a deep triple that cut Chicago’s lead to 39-34. Young then scored off a putback, and Anunoby followed with a layup and an assist to Freddy for another three, a 7-0 run that cut the lead to 1, 42-41.
On the defensive end, things started to look sharper in the second as well. That trap on DeRozan started working more effectively, in part because Nurse gave a heavier dose of minutes to Otto Porter; post-game, he mentioned that he thought the complex trap scheme might benefit from having two veterans like Young and Porter out there executing, and it sure seemed to make a difference.
Koloko picked up two more blocks in the frame, his second leading to slam dunk on the other end, on an assist from O.G.; O.G. then followed up a miss of his own with a dunk that gave the Raptors a 55-49 halftime lead.
After the half, the Raptors looked a lot more like, well, the Raptors. The length and aggressiveness finally started to get to the Bulls, and perhaps a little frustration showed as they picked up three team fouls in the first 2.5 minutes of the third. Alex Caruso then blew a 2-on-1 layup that led to a GTJ and-1 the other way, which put the Raps up 10.
GTJ then had a slam, and the Raps looked like they were gonna blow things wide open… but the Bulls weren’t ready to quit yet.
Don't jump with him @gtrentjr pic.twitter.com/0RvzTY8Hmu— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 7, 2022
A three from Nikola Vucevic and two threes from Ayo Dosunmu cut the lead to 1. But the Raptors went right back to spamming that FVV-Koloko PnR, and Barnes and Boucher both scored on layups out of the action (Barnes on a rocket assist from Fred, Boucher on a dish from Koloko).
Crazy pass by Fred VanVleet, whipped it through the entire Bulls defense. pic.twitter.com/tVxEip3GfC— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) November 7, 2022
DeRozan definitely let some frustration show after that; with Anunoby draped all over him on the one end, he got a little aggressive guarding VanVleet on the other, and picked up a tech after fouling Freddy on a three. VanVleet hit the tech and all four FTs to push Toronto’s lead back to 7.
The Bulls had an opportunity before the quarter ended to cut into the lead, with VanVleet on the bench and DeRozan still on the floor. It looked like the Raptors would withstand the lead — Precious Achiuwa had a dunk in the post, DeRozan tuned it over and GTJ hit a free throw to make it 10-point lead — but Dragic and DeRozan went on an 11-2 run to close the quarter, giving the Raps a slim 83-82 lead heading into the fourth.
The fourth quarter didn’t look like it was going to go Toronto’s way, not early; the Bulls, trailing by 1, opened the frame on a 7-2 run. But VanVleet returned, Barnes settled things down with a slam, and O.G. followed it up with a three off a Thad Young offensive rebound. A Dragic travel gave the Raptors the ball back and — following a scramble after a Barnes miss — Boucher slammed home a loose ball to put the Raptors back on top, 90-89.
The teams traded buckets before Young’s baby hook gave the Raptors a 98-97 lead with 5:46 to go; the Raptors never trailed again.
These two teams are back it again tomorrow night, when they’ll meet in Chicago for a rematch.