The Bulls played basically two completely separate games against the Toronto Raptors on Monday.
There were the first 40 minutes of the game, where they led by upwards of 20 points multiple times through the third quarter and looked on their way to a comfortable win.
And then there were the last eight minutes of the game, where everything that could go wrong outside of DeMar DeRozan did. The Raptors cut an 11 point lead down to two twice in that span. It looked like the Raptors might deal the Bulls a crushing blow, but Fred VanVleet missed a potential game-tying 3 that had Stacey King gasping for air. The shot hit back iron, and the Bulls escaped with a 111-108 victory.
The ending marred what was otherwise a very good performance, particularly defensively. The Bulls held the Raptors to a 106.2 defensive rating for those first 40 minutes (remember from my previous story that the Lakers had a league-best 106.8 defensive rating last year).
Lonzo Ball stood out to me as the defensive player of the game. He had a number of noteworthy plays, mostly in the third quarter before the team collapsed.
Patrick Williams had two (first and second) huge blocks from the weak side and played solid defense on OG Anunoby as well. Even Zach LaVine chipped in with some nice on-ball defense.
Nikola Vucevic had a very uneven performance defensively. He had a bunch of deflections, and he’s been great at getting his hands on passes to the roll man. But he looked extremely bad when he was put into space. He gave VanVleet a good look at a game-tying shot and also gave up a layup late in the game when he was put on an island with VanVleet yet again.
Onto those last eight minutes. Vucevic was a large part of the late-game collapse, missing a free throw with 9.7 seconds left that would have extended the Bulls’ lead to four. Both teams had no timeouts, so making both would have effectively iced the game.
Ball and LaVine added to those late-game struggles. They were a combined 1-of-5 in the last eight minutes with three turnovers. It’s hard to even pinpoint who was responsible for some of those lost balls. The entire team outside of DeRozan basically collapsed, and they couldn’t inbound the ball consistently.
This was a game that the team for sure would have lost in deflating fashion in years past, but DeRozan came through in the clutch for the team. He was brought in to help the Bulls win close games, and he did his job in this one.
DeRozan was one of the best isolation players in the league last season. That, combined with his heady passing, makes him a great option late in games. He was a very good crunch time player for the Spurs because he scores at a decent rate and rarely turns it over. He was third in the league in clutch scoring last year, converting a very respectable 45% of his shots. But where he really made his money was in getting to the line, where his 61 trips in crunch time were the most in the league.
DeRozan followed that same Spurs formula to single-handedly save the Bulls. There’s no deep analysis here. He cooked in the mid-range and made tough shots, which is what he’s done his whole career. He was also cool as a cucumber while the rest of the team was in full-panic mode.
I have been effusive in my praise of Billy Donovan generally, but I didn’t think that he did a great job of keeping his team poised in this one. Additionally, his use of challenges and timeouts late in games have been one of my biggest gripes about him.
The one exception to this critique was in calling a timeout between Precious Achiuwa’s free throw attempts with 3:09 left in the game. It was a use-it-or-lose-it timeout (both teams automatically goes down to two timeouts after the three-minute mark), and calling it between free throws like that does result in more misses on the second free throw statistically. It’s been a Steve Kerr staple, and Phil Jackson did it before him. Achiuwa did miss his second attempt.
Donovan’s other timeout usage was questionable. The Bulls had a clean inbound with 18 seconds left and a four point lead, but he called a timeout to draw up a play. That resulted in LaVine getting trapped at halfcourt, and he was forced to call his last one just two seconds later. The Bulls ended up turning it over on the ensuing inbound anyway.
Timeout usage may seem like a minor quibble, but it can be a huge swing factor in a one-possession game. Donovan needed to save at least one of his timeouts to advance the ball with under 24 seconds left in the event that the Raptors tied or went ahead. The Bulls were also forced to improvise on the Raptors’ last play, and they decided to switch everything. That led to Vucevic on VanVleet, which almost ended in disaster.
DeRozan bailed Donovan and the rest of the team out, so it ended up not mattering anyway.
Nitpicking aside, it’s not often that the Bulls start 4-0. While there have been areas of concern that they definitely need to clean up, let’s take some time to enjoy this moment.
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