In a battle of teams that have mostly underachieved this season, it was the resurgent Toronto Raptors that were able to claim a pivotal victory over the Chicago Bulls, 104-98. With the win, Toronto moves 2.5 games up on the Bulls in the standings, and claims the season series 2-1, giving them the tiebreaker should they need it.
Pascal Siakam led the way for Toronto with 20 points and 8 rebounds, while Gary Trent Jr. led all reserves with 19 points, including a pair of free throws with 15.2 seconds remaining to ice the game and give the Raptors a 101-96 advantage.
Nikola Vucevic led the way for the visiting Bulls with 23 points as Chicago’s efficient shooting kept this game close throughout. The Bulls shot 52% from the field, 40% from three, and 82% from the line. They were coming off their two best defensive performances to start the post-All-Star break schedule, holding the Nets to 87 points and the Wizards to 82 points. However, Toronto found its groove in the fourth quarter while showing off its depth.
Let’s actually step a little further back to the third quarter with 2:46 remaining. The Raptors were clinging to a 65-64 lead when Jakob Poeltl subbed out. In his relatively short time with the team (the second time around), Poeltl has quickly established himself as Toronto’s defensive anchor. When he sits, the defense falls apart. What ensued was the turning point in the game.
Siakam and Fred VanVleet — who returned to the lineup after missing three games due to the birth of his third child — joined Poeltl on the bench to start the 4th quarter. A lineup of Scottie Barnes, Trent Jr., Precious Achiuwa, Thad Young, and Chris Boucher was not the first, second, or eighth lineup configuration you’d think would turn a close game... until it did. Boucher and GTJ hit three triples to keep Chicago at bay.
Barnes would (surprise) save his best for the fourth quarter and play the entire 12 minutes. He hit a momentum-building and-one layup to grow the lead to 86-82 (after the made free throw). Scottie would follow that up moments later with a three-pointer to give Toronto a 96-87 lead. His true impact, though, was on the defensive end where he collected four(!) blocks in the final frame.
Before the game, Nick Nurse called out Chicago’s preferred lineup of four guards and Vucevic. With VanVleet back in the lineup and Poeltl’s growing comfort in a Raptors uniform (again), the Raptors used a bevy of high-low feeds and cutting action to get some easy buckets in the paint. Pascal Siakam helped himself to a handful of points in the paint as well.
The Bulls’ speedy guards returned the favour in kind. Ayo Dosunmu blew by VanVleet twice in the first quarter for a pair of layups.
Considering the importance of the game (rubber match between teams fighting to get out of the play-in), it was surprising to see newly acquired veteran, Will Barton, check into the game midway through the second quarter. He performed... just as you’d expect someone to perform who literally signed with the team a couple of hours earlier. Barton played four minutes, missed his only field goal attempt, and finished a minus 4.
The Raptors were stellar on defense in the first half in limiting Chicago’s All-Star backcourt. Zach Lavine was held to four points on four attempts. DeMar DeRozan was limited to six points and only two free throws. In the first three minutes of the second quarter, Jakob Poeltl blocked DeRozan twice. The first block occurred because O.G. Anunoby shut down DeRozan’s drive and led him into Poeltl’s waiting paws. A couple of minutes later, Poeltl stuffed DeRozan under the basket. It’s nice having a rim protector!
OG getting to defend straight up, with Poeltl behind him, is ridiculous. Like an eraser with an eraser on the end.— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 1, 2023
At the half, Toronto had more offensive rebounds (6-1) and more steals (6-2), which led to a sizable advantage in field goal attempts (48-36). However, the Bulls were considerably more efficient as they shot 53% from the field to the Raptors’ 35%. Chicago also did a great job of limiting Toronto’s lethal transition attack to only five attempts and two points.
In the third quarter, the crowd had barely settled into their seats by the time Chicago grew its two-point halftime lead to eight. Lavine made a conscious effort to be more aggressive. He would score 11 in the quarter and end the game with 17 points — well below his season average of 24.2.
Until cloning is perfected and legally allowed, there’s only one Anunoby. So, Nurse had to decide who would get the O.G. treatment between DeRozan and Lavine. He opted for DeRozan, essentially matching their floor/bench minutes. DeRozan was not only shut down (his 13 points were also well below his season average of 25.3) but looked very ‘un-DeMar-like’. He missed two free throws in the fourth quarter — the first miss was met by a loud roar as it won the crowd some free pizza; the second miss with Chicago down four with 17.2 seconds remaining. In addition to Poeltl’s two blocks on DeRozan in the second, Barnes also blocked him in the fourth. Finally, in a weird twilight zone moment, it was DeRozan that ended up on a poster.
The aforementioned small lineup for the Bulls ended up biting them in the you-know-where. After Vucevic missed a three with 1:53 remaining and a 99-95 deficit, the Raptors managed to keep possession for almost an entire minute as they bled the shot clock and corralled two massive offensive rebounds. Toronto came away empty-handed but with less than a minute remaining, the damage was down.
Toronto would end the game at +23 in field goal attempts. As monstrous as that discrepancy seems, that’s ‘only’ tied for the fourth-highest field goal advantage for the Raptors this season.
With this critical victory in the books, the Raptors now embark on a crucial five-game road trip. Toronto’s next two games are against another team mired in the play-in spiderweb as they visit the Wizards in Washington. The Raptors finish that road trip with its final three road games against the West (Denver and the two Los Angeles teams). If they continue winning the minutes with Poeltl — and without — I’ll go out on a limb and say they’ll win 100% of those games.