The Bulls have had difficulty scoring all season. They rank among the bottom five in the NBA in scoring and shooting. They just needed more punch.
No! No! That’s not what they meant.
But, alas, so it was Tuesday in Toronto, a mellow city in a peaceful country, where Robin Lopez was brawling, ejected after a rare NBA fist fight with Serge Ibaka. And then the Bulls lost the battle, also, surrendering a 15-point lead in the last 6:39 of regulation and losing to the Raptors in overtime 122-120.
With Milwaukee and Miami winning, the Bulls are reeling in their fight for the playoffs.
“I thought the way we played against Utah, second half against Washington, we played some of our best basketball of the season and for the first three and a half quarters tonight,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Unfortunately we didn’t finish and this one hurts. It’s tough. Again, we have no choice; we have to bounce back and get ready for tomorrow.”
Which is a game against the Detroit Pistons, also on the outside and trying to get to the playoffs. But both the Pistons and Bulls are skidding while the Heat and Bucks have been streaking. So it’s not going to look good for the Bulls with Lopez likely suspended for the fight. Plus, the Bulls lost backup center Cristiano Felicio midway through the fourth quarter after a hard fall. His status for Wednesday is uncertain.
Just like the Bulls after this devastating defeat.
“We can go out there and play like we did when we were playing good basketball,” said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 37 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. “We’ve got another one tomorrow, yadda, yadda yadda, be better, yadda yadda yadda, same thing I always say.”
That didn’t sound too reassuring.
Not that Butler isn’t competing; he’d often been brilliant in the Bulls’ 11 straight wins over Toronto heading into Tuesday’s game. He often was again with a pair of baskets after the Raptors scored 15 straight points to tie the game with 1:50 left in regulation.
But it was a collapse of epic proportions, the Bulls outscored 50-32 following the fight.
Butler had to share some blame. He’s often bailed the Bulls out late in games with his strong individual play, especially with big scoring games against the Raptors.
“Jimmy’s a guy we’re going to put the ball in his hands, especially when he’s got it going like he did tonight,” said Hoiberg. “Unfortunately, those shots didn’t fall. We took some shots that were there; they didn’t go in. Then when we did have a half court possession we didn’t have a lot of movement; we’ve got to be better than that.”
The Bulls played a beautiful three quarters, 11-2 on fast break points, 20 assists on 32 baskets, 19 of 24 free throws, 11 of 24 threes, the ball moving back and forth across the court for easier shots and everyone involved. Then it all stopped, the Bulls without a free throw the last 10 minutes of regulation and the entire overtime, a late fourth quarter run of eight straight misses and three turnovers that enabled the Raptors to steal a game—and a season—that seemed the Bulls for the taking. The Bulls fell to 33-38.
But was everyone not getting the ball, or not wanting it? Did Butler have to score because no one else could or would? It’s often a delicate combination of both. Though, mostly, a momentum type road win wasted.
“Guys were playing together, pace was phenomenal, especially early in that game,” said Hoiberg. “The game just got a little ugly. They got up and pressed and trapped, got us sped up a little bit. Had some bad turnovers that led to easy baskets for them. If we compete like that at that level, we know we’re going to have a chance.”
But it is getting late.
Especially for Lopez, who, stunningly, squared off with Ibaka with 3:58 left in the third quarter just after a Butler three gave the Bulls an 88-72 lead and the Raptors seemed extinct again against the Bulls.
“It was just a really physical game, physical game for everybody,” said Lopez. “Just kind of hit the flashpoint.”
That was DeMar DeRozan on the shot pushing Lopez as he waited for the rebound. Lopez stumbled backward into Ibaka, who apparently was doing his share of talking during the game.
“Ibaka was talking to me for some time and I was like 'Why, come on man, play basketball,'” Butler said. “I didn’t see what happened. I just saw punches thrown. I don’t know who hit who or who didn’t hit who, but obviously he (Lopez) is going to be suspended; we know that. We’re going to miss that guy but what’s new; next man up right?
Lopez went into Ibaka and began to turn to run up court. Ibaka hit him in the back with an elbow. Lopez turned and slapped the ball away from Ibaka. And it was on. Punches exchanged, an unusual sight in the NBA these days.
“It seemed like I had three guys on me,” said Lopez. “I was being pulled back and I’m not sure what was going on at the other end, but it felt like nobody had any hold on him (Ibaka). He just kept coming at me; I was just trying to get him off me.
“I’m expecting to be suspended,” Lopez admitted.
Nikola Mirotic and Raptors assistant Jamaal Magloire were pushing at midcourt and assessed technicals.
There hasn’t been that much fighting in Canada since the U.S. invaded Ontario in the War of 1812.
Lost that one, too.
The Raptors were showing more relief, especially in breaking their unusual losing streak to the Bulls after never once leading in the game until late in the overtime.
“I thought it got us going,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said of the altercation. “Serge Ibaka doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. He’s a competitor, so is Lopez. I don’t think either one of them is Rocky. I don’t think he meant anything malicious. I didn’t even see who threw the first punch, but we’ll see what comes out of it.”
Ibaka will be suspended, also.
“What happened is he was playing physical basketball and he got frustrated,” charged Ibaka. “We started to push each other like always happens when there's contact and then he threw the punch. Like a man, I had to defend myself. I'm not just going be out there and watch a man like him punch me and walk away. On the rebound he kind of bumped me, I kind of bumped him a little bit and he got mad. He slapped the ball out of my hands and then we started talking like that and then he punched me. He threw the first punch and I have to do something.”
It was the beginning of the end for the Bulls, thought it took a few minutes more.
They’d had a wonderful start, Rajon Rondo with 24 points and eight assists in the game, pushing the ball, making threes. Butler’s scoring was coming easy as he was getting back to the free throw line with the Raptors’ defense in retreat and off balance. The Bulls led by nine points four minutes in and by 31-27 after one. They kicked the lead out to 15 in the second quarter. The Raptors continued to come back, trailing 59-54 at halftime. But this was a Bulls team we hadn’t seen often, running, trusting one another, passing, making shots, 53 percent in the first half.
When Mirotic made a pair of threes and Rondo hit his fourth, you thought maybe Toronto just felt cursed. Then there was the fight, but the Bulls still held on 94-79 after three with a late Butler three pointer. Then Michael Carter-Williams banked in a three for a 102-87 lead and Paul Zipser made a tough driving scoop and the three for the 109-94 Bulls lead with 6:39 left.
The Raptors also were just finishing off missing four consecutive free throws. How could this one not be over?
The Bulls shrunk from the moment, that’s how. Even Rondo got careless and committed a pair of turnovers. Butler figured he could close it, but Toronto has excellent perimeter defenders in P.J. Tucker and DeMarre Carroll. They thwarted Butler and the Bulls stared firing quick jumpers. Rondo, Denzel Valentine and Butler also missed threes and suddenly the home crowd was deafening and the Raptors were pushing the ball, playing loose and free as the Bulls got tighter and tighter. Butler got the Bulls that four-point lead with 1:12 left in regulation.
But DeMar DeRozan with 42 points came right back with a 17 footer, Butler missed a three, DeRozan drove and tied it. But he missed for the three-point play and lead with 37.3 seconds left. Butler and DeRozan then exchanged misses and the teams went to overtime.
“I feel like we got all the right shots,” said Butler. “If those go in we probably win. It’s part of the game. The thing you can always control is on the defensive end. You need to rebound the basketball; we didn’t do that. We have to contest shots; we didn’t do that. They got those loose balls; they got those put-backs. That was the game within itself.”
The Bulls scored first with a Butler drive, but then it was all Raptors for eight straight points as the Bulls missed seven straight shots, a trio of threes by Valentine, a couple of runners from Rondo. By the time Rondo scored on a steal with 11.4 seconds left, the Bulls trailed by six. It was the first Bulls player other than Butler to score in 11 game minutes. The Raptors made a pair of free throws to finish before a late Butler three.
“I thought we did miss some good looks,” said Hoiberg. “I think we had three or four wide open shots. We missed a couple of layups down the stretch and into overtime. We’re competing; we’re competing at a high level right now. We’ve got to keep that going. That’s one positive you have to take out of tonight. We’ve got to find a way to bounce back with a big effort tomorrow; regroup and put together a game plan for Detroit.”