When the Toronto Raptors are feeling it, you notice.
The team is buzzing around on defense, they’re swarming the offensive glass, and everyone is finding their niche to contribute — even when there’s only one basketball to go around.
Coming into tonight’s game, that last caveat was probably on the minds of Raptors players more than it’d normally be. With Khem Birch returning from a broken nose, Toronto had all eight of their top rotation players for one of the first times all season. Seeing how that would look on the court, while being tested against the Eastern Conference’s top team — the Chicago Bulls — would be interesting to say the least.
Call it a passed test, then. The Raptors went nine deep and amassed 22 offensive rebounds, earning 23 more shots than the Bulls. Through their play on the glass, they simply out-muscled their counterparts, winning 127-120 in overtime.
Three players had five offensive rebounds each for Toronto — Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa — a telling stat in a game where the Raptors thrived off having so many more bites at the apple.
The balance in rebounds between players was there in the scoring column too.
Siakam led the way, scoring 17 of his 25 in the first half, adding 13 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block. Three other Raptors had 21 points: OG Anunoby (who had two clutch triples in the extra frame), Scottie Barnes and freshly minted All-Star Fred VanVleet.
Absent these top scorers, though, of course, was Gary Trent Jr. Not to worry. While his streak of 30-plus point games came to a sad end on Thursday, he still had some brilliant bookends. Gary scored four of the Raptors’ first six points, then made some OT magic a few hours later.
With his team up two and coming up empty on an offensive possession, Trent Jr. stole the Bulls’ outlet pass, then re-organized himself for an open three — swishing it, putting Toronto up five and sealing the win.
Trent Jr.’s brilliance has been a key reason the Raptors have looked so good over the last couple weeks. Even though his scoring output was less tonight, it was obvious that the Bulls were honouring his shooting threat. While Chicago kept a defender at home on Trent Jr., the other Raptors ran a lot of screening action to free up VanVleet and Siakam. The process worked, as even when those players received pressure, they were able to find passing lanes and set their teammates up.
Role players weren’t just catching passes, though. Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher had an incredible two-headed attack tonight, leaving Khem Birch (5 minutes, 0 points) as an afterthought for another game. The two combined for 21 rebounds off the bench and Boucher in particular was converting, making 8-for-14 (all but one shot inside the three-point stripe) and scoring 16 points.
An aside on Boucher: that level of ‘get after it’ is always appreciated, but it feels like it’s becoming the norm now. Remember, this was a guy who was a gunner through most of the Tampa season, when the team was so beat up that they needed him to initiate offense.
Now, he’s doing most of his work on the edges: mainly bouncing for multiple efforts on the glass and making himself available in transition. The two versions of Boucher — last year’s scorer and this year’s team player — makes for either a great asset for Toronto’s stretch run, or interesting trade bait as we approach the deadline.
On the Bulls side, there were multiple efforts by DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine to build momentum and get the team going. They did so at key points, a 7-0 run near the end of the first half and clawing their way through a ten-point Raptors lead in the fourth.
It just came out sporadic, though, and there wasn’t that through line of DeRozan excellence that we saw in the last matchup on January 26. DeMar still dropped 28 points, as he tends to do, but half of that was at the free throw line. LaVine had just 15, only taking ten shots in 42 minutes.
In their place and keeping the Bulls competitive throughout, Nikola Vucevic was awesome. Scoring 30 points on 13-for-21 shooting, Vucevic added 18 rebounds and four assists, looking comfortable as an offensive cog while the Raptors loaded up on Chicago’s backcourt. Still, for all the numbers, Vucevic couldn’t play all 48 minutes, and the Raptors feasted on the glass when he sat.
It just comes back to that — rebounding and effort — as the Raptors are now four games above .500 at 27-23. Before they finally get a weekend off, they’ve got one more game to go tomorrow night against the Hawks.