DeRozan leads Bulls in the clutch, hold off Raptors for fourth straight win

The former Raptor came up big with multiple fourth-quarter buckets to lead Chicago with the victory.
by ssmith
Remind Me Later
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Get out the giant foam fingers. That's right; say it loud and say it proud! "We're No. 1, We're No. 1!"

Yes, the Bulls. Sure we have to mention all the disclaimers that it's just four games, it's early, none of the opponents are generally expected to make the playoffs and not all the games were even in the country. But it has been four games and there's only one team in the Eastern Conference that hasn't lost a game.

After Monday's 111-108 Bulls victory over the Toronto Raptors, it's spelled, "We're No. 1, we're No. 1!"

"We've got a long way to go," braked DeMar DeRozan, who saved the Bulls with 11 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, though since his crucial baskets came on mid range jump shots the league's analytics police is investigating the legitimacy.

"We've got a lot more to clean up, to learn. It's a long season, man," warned DeRozan, who also made 10 of 10 free throws. "(The start) is great, but we've got a lot more basketball to go. We can't carry this record like it's some kind of badge of honor. You (do) live for those moments, honestly. I get up for those moments. I love ‘em. It was part of the reason they wanted me to come here, my experience being in those moments, understanding how to deal with those moments. Since I was a kid just having an imagination, hitting big shots in a dark room. You kind of feed into that when 20,000 fans are out there watching.

"That was part of the reason why I even chose to come to Chicago," DeRozan added. "Everyone was eager to want to be successful, want to win. Everyone had that chip on their shoulder from the city to the organization to the players that I spoke to. Coming into this season that was everyone's mindset; it's all about winning now. We're not in a development stage. We want to win now and that was my mindset. I wanted to come and contribute to that; just trying to continue to build on that."

DeMar DeRozan being defending by his former Raptors teammate Fred VanVleet.

DeMar DeRozan being defending by his former Raptors teammate Fred VanVleet.

DeRozan did so in his return to his beloved Toronto both impressively and revealingly as that second go-to closer the team lacked. It wasn't the greatest game for Zach LaVine, who did have 22 points and passed Michael Jordan on the team's all-time three-point shooting list.

Nikola Vucevic fighting off an illness had 17 points and eight rebounds and heady defense on Fred VanVleet's three-point attempt to tie the game at the buzzer. Lonzo Ball had 15 points with five of nine threes and raging defense that forced back-to-back Toronto turnovers in the fourth quarter. He had two more steals as he, Vucevic and Alex Caruso all are averaging at least two steals per game. And Troy Brown getting a wakeup call from the play of Ayo Dosunmu had his best game with 11 points. But all of that was about to go availing until DeRozan, who also led with six assists, signaled, I got this.

With the Bulls just about to blow a 20-point lead and 11 with nine minutes to go, a game they dominated for three and a half quarters, DeRozan wiggled into the spots and made the shots that made him a four-time All-Star and perhaps the North's favorite player of all time.

DeRozan's first big Toronto heartbreaker was when the Raptors pulled within 97-95 with about five minutes left. DeRozan coolly navigated over a Vucevic screen to the free throw line for a 16 footer. With the home fans seeing the team for the first time in a year and in a frenzy, Caruso stepped in front of a Scottie Barnes pass and dribbled full court for a pair of free throws. He made both with four minutes left for a 101-95 Bulls lead. Gary Trent then missed a three. DeRozan then went into the left corner in front of the Bulls bench, declined a Ball screen and turned back toward the baseline for a 12 footer for a 103-95 Bulls lead with 3:20 left.

Alarm bells did go off in many league front office analytics departments. You can't win that way!

LaVine did make a three in the next possession for a 10-point Bulls lead with three minutes left to not completely get the Bulls excluded from the All-Star weekend tech summit and subsequent Sloan Analytics Conference.

Highlights from Chicago's 111-108 win in Toronto on Monday night.

The Bulls built their lead—and much of their play in the first three games—with relentless effort, smothering defense and impeccable ball handling. But LaVine messed up a dribble out of the backcourt and Caruso lost a drive as the Raptors got back within four with 1:50 left.

Calling DeMar DeRozan, calling DeMar Derozan.

The 6-6 guard who loves Canada so much you'd think he grew up in Saskatoon then lined up Trent to take on a third different Raptors defender. DeRozan glided back into a straight on 14-footer for a 108-102 Bulls lead with 1:28 left.

"We're happy to have him," said Ball. "Obviously, he's been our go-to in the closing moments of games and he hasn't disappointed yet. Tonight he put us on his back pretty much and carried the fourth quarter for us and got us a win, essentially."

Though the scrappy and in transition Raptors still weren't quite done even without star Pascal Siakam. VanVleet scored and then Vucevic apparently inadvertently got an outlet pass from Ball against pressure and threw it away. But Caruso then grabbed his fourth steal on a cross court VanVleet pass leading to more DeRozan.

The Bulls no longer had to force something to LaVine with everyone chasing him. DeRozan driving drew contact from OG Anunoby—DeRozan in his best Canadian rectitude said afterward about the decline in league free throws he doesn't flop but doesn't begrudge anyone who does—for a pair of free throws and 110-104 Bulls lead with one full possession remaining.

But after a VanVleet score and two Bulls timeouts, Ball overthrew Vucevic on an inbounds pass toward the you-never-do-that Raptors basket and Barnes dunked to get Toronto within 110-108 with 14.4 seconds left. We've seen this show before.

With the Raptors pressuring, Ball passed half court to Vucevic, who dribbled up and had the ball knocked away. It went to the Bulls and back to Vucevic to be fouled on the inbounds pass. He made just one of two free throws, barely rattling in the second, and thus giving Toronto a chance with 9.7 seconds left. But without a timeout due to a previous unsuccessful challenge.

Foul and let them shoot two free throws? Too much time left? Not confident in your own free throw shooting?

Bulls coach Billy Donovan opted not to foul. Ball said the Bulls were switching every screen. Donovan said with Vucevic shooting the free throws and no timeouts he couldn't bring in Patrick Williams for defense. VanVleet dribbled down the right side, getting Vucevic to switch on a screen in front of the Raptors bench. But Vucevic stayed with him. VanVleet had to cross over twice between his legs to get enough room for a tough three pointer to tie. It hit the rim long as the clock hit zeros.

"Just did my job," said the 32-year-old, 13 year veteran DeRozan. "Using my experience, understanding those moments, understanding what needs to be done. We got kind of stagnant, couldn't score. Those guys went on a run. It's always my job, especially late game, to close out the game. Getting to my spots, trying to make big shots. Something that I'm not shy about. I always want those moments and understand the magnitude of it."

Talk about magnitude.

No one's talking title yet like they were in 1996, the last time the Bulls opened a season with four-straight wins, though that one extended to a dozen. Heck, this isn't a franchise that even spent a day with a record above .500 the last four years.

But like DeRozan pointed out, it's a new time and not about anything but competing and succeeding.

Billy Donovan speaks to the media after Chicago's nail-biting win in Toronto.

It hasn't been a difficult schedule to start with the Knicks next on Thursday on Joakim Noah celebration night. Though the Bulls have had numerous "easy" schedules before without similar results.

It wasn't a great start, which also has been the pattern until getting a bit of a charge late in the first quarter when DeRozan returned to join the reserves in Donovan's rotation pattern.

The Bulls remained especially careful with the ball again, just three first half turnovers to 10 for Toronto that would offset the Raptors eventual 48-28 rebounding margin. Donovan has been steadfast in playing smaller and quicker, not using backup center Tony Bradley in order to produce steals and blocks for the extra possessions. That accompanied by the lack of turnovers has been a winning formula. Until almost coming apart with those late fourth quarter miscues.

"I'm proud of them the way they hung in there and found a way to win the game at the end," said Donovan. "Taking care of the ball and turnovers with our skill level, we've got to be much better than we were."

It was tied at 24 after one quarter. But with Ball making three of four threes in the second quarter, the Bulls took a 61-51 halftime lead. Ball even became the shooting model for Shaquille O'Neal on his podcast as he pointed to Ball as an example of a player who worked to make himself a good shooter.

"[Ball's] shooting is a testament to somebody working on their jumper," Shaq said in adding as a rookie Ball had "one ugly" shot. "Lonzo Ball is shooting that thing and he looks good shooting that thing."

Lonzo Ball after making his first three-pointer of the game. He finished with five threes total for 15 points.

Lonzo Ball after making his first three-pointer of the game. He finished with five threes total for 15 points.

It's been impressive to watch how consistently hard these Bulls have been playing. It led to a 20-point third quarter lead with LaVine finally finding his shot and 13 third-quarter points. The Raptors shaved it down to 92-80 Bulls after three quarters. It seemed like the Bulls would have enough with a 95-80 fourth quarter lead as Ball, constantly putting pressure on Raptors players and forcing turnovers, had one of those sequences we're becoming familiar with already.

He fought over a screen to stay with Anunoby and blocked his shot at the 24-second buzzer, picked up a LaVine miss and drove and passed to Alize Johnson for a score and then stripped the ball from VanVleet on a drive and forced the ball off VanVleet for a turnover.

Just enough margin as it turned out to hold on.

"There were mistakes," Ball acknowledged. "Tonight was obviously not how we want to close things out going forward. We still won the game and get to learn on the fly."

Which is what No. 1 is all about.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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