Balanced Bulls beat Raptors, play-in hopes live

Zach LaVine scored 24, Coby White had 17 points and ten assists, and Nikola Vucevic had a 16 points and 16 rebounds as the Bulls defeated a shorthanded Raptors squad 114-102 on Thursday night. With the win, the Bulls keep their play-in tournament hopes alive, but will need the Washington Wizards to lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night to starve off elimination. The Bulls (30-40) play their final regular-season road game on Saturday when they take on the Brooklyn Nets (46-24) at Noon.

The Bulls Thursday defeated the Toronto Raptors 114-102 in a game mostly Sam Hinkie could love.

That's because the out-of-contention Raptors "rested" basically their top eight players and started a blend of rookies, free agents, undrafted players and a draft bust who was the best of all.

That bust, Stanley Johnson, who'd been drifting outside NBA rotations and the G-league since being selected No. 8 in the 2015 NBA draft, scored a career-high 35 points with ten rebounds, five assists and three steals. Which earned mostly a shrug from the mostly casual Bulls who after their usual slow start led by double digits and as many as 24 for most of the last three quarters.

Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 24 points. Lauri Markkanen off the bench had his first game of 20 points in almost two months with six of nine threes. Coby White had 17 points and ten assists and Nikola Vucevic added 16 points, 16 rebounds and six assists. Thad Young starting for injured Daniel Theis had ten points, eight rebounds and seven assists and Javonte Green also had ten points.

Zach LaVine finished with 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting in the win over the Bulls.

The victory to get the Bulls to 30-40 still left the Bulls searching for wins Saturday against Brooklyn and Sunday against Milwaukee and losses by Washington to Cleveland and Charlotte to qualify for the play-in tournament for the last two playoff spots. That begins Tuesday and the playoffs open May 22.

"That was the challenge today for our team," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "We don't control our own destiny. But we live another day, so to speak. It's out of our hands and I thought it was important we show up and do our job as best as we can.

"We didn't start the game well (trailing 9-2). But I thought we recovered, rebounded and played pretty well midway through the first and pretty much through the second period," said Donovan. "The third quarter we started off OK (taking a 73-49 lead), but then we turned the ball over entirely too much. We have to gain better awareness of how you allow teams to get back in games."

Billy Donovan speaks to the media following Chicago's 114-102 win over the Raptors on Thursday night.

There's not much time for that now, and perhaps none if the Wizards win Friday night.

Instead, the game became something of an appraisal of the talents and fortunes of two of the players who were supposed to be cornerstones for this Bulls rebuilding project, 6-5 points guard White and seven—foot forward Markkanen. Much of it has changed—and advanced—with the acquisitions this season of Nikola Vucevic and Theis and the elevation of rookie Patrick Williams.

Both White and Markkanen lost their starting jobs, White just before the trade for Vucevic and Markkanen shortly afterward.

As No. 7 overall draft selections in 2017 for Markkanen and 2019 for White, they were to combine with Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter Jr., the latter seventh pick in 2018, to move the franchise forward. But Carter went to Orlando in the Vucevic trade and with the team stumbling this season, White was replaced by Tomas Satoransky and Markkanen by Theis.

Both have remained committed teammates and willing to sacrifice for the team. But while White reclaimed his starting spot and seemingly a place in the Bulls future thanks to his excellent fit with Vucevic, according to Donovan, Markkanen has mostly settled into a secondary role, if not his fault, according to Donovan. Markkanen is averaging career lows this season in scoring, assists, rebounding and minutes played.

He is a restricted free agent and his future with the Bulls is uncertain.

"I think the most important stat in this league is minutes played per game. And if anybody proved that tonight, it was Stanley Johnson," Donovan pointed out. "If Lauri was playing more minutes... but we've got other really good players out there, too, so we're trying to make it all fit together.

Highlights from the Bulls' 30th win of the season as they beat the short-handed Raptors at the United Center.

"When the trade did happen, he was a guy who was playing center and four and now it's gone from the four to the three (small forward)," Donovan pointed out about Markkanen. "He has been impacted. I've appreciated the way he has come in every day and tried to be a team guy and done the best he can in managing the minutes that he's gotten. I disagree with anybody that says, ‘Well, he has really dropped off or tailed off.' His minutes have changed. His role has changed. So you're talking about a guy who has a shoulder injury, misses quite a bit of time, comes back after the All-Star break, plays a couple games and then we have an entirely different team and now he has to reinvent himself. I do think he has played well in an entirely different role than the one he started the season with."

Good enough to remain with the Bulls after this season?

It seems like White has even if there continues to be speculation about acquiring another point guard after this season.

"Coby has helped Vooch and Vooch has really helped Coby," said Donovan. "Vooch either creates a lot of jump shots or a lot of closeouts for him. The two things Coby does exceptionally well, he's a really good three-point shooter (and) when he gets into the teeth of the defense he can get other guys involved and other guys shots (for Vucevic to pop open outside). I think those two guys have really helped each other quite a bit."

Highlights from Coby White's 17-point, 10-assist performance against Toronto.

In addition, White fought through the benching that was less personnel addition and more declining play and is averaging almost 19 points on 41 percent three-point shooting since returning to the starting spot. His spacing with Vucevic has been a positive for the Bulls offense.

"It makes life easier being able to have a big that can step out and shoot the ball," said White. "Vooch is also a hell of a playmaker. He can put the ball on the floor, especially going to his left hand. He's super unselfish. I think I benefitted from him being here a lot, so I thank him. It's been great. Obviously, this stint I've been playing a lot better. But over the course of the season I had a lot to learn.

"I think I've always had perseverance, but (especially) this year with ups and downs and being pushed constantly, from the coaching staff to front office to my teammates, learning to play the point guard position at a high level in the NBA, which is continuing to stay focused and continuing to stay within yourself... A lot of guys my age, especially getting taken out the starting lineup, you could've handled that two different ways," said White. "You could've pouted and just said forget it, F-it. Or you could've just kept playing and continue to get better and continue to stay on the grind. I chose to continue to stay on the grind and continue to keep playing. And then my number got called and I took advantage of it. Perseverance, just continuing to fight through obstacles and challenges. That's what I've done my whole life. So just continuing to do that for me.

"I didn't pout or nothing," said White. "I respected the decision and I respected Billy for telling me upfront and bringing me to the office before he announced it to the team and whatnot. So I feel like it was going to help the team. I just continued to play my role coming off the bench and bringing that energy and being positive and uplifting my teammates. That's all you can do. I feel like any other way you handle it it's selfish. This year I feel like I've been playing my best basketball as a Bull."

So at least still tracking in the right direction.