Bulls fall to Raptors, 124-115

Bulls and Raptors were tied going into the 4th, and then it was over.

The Bulls have a pretty sweet scoring ensemble these days, averaging more 110 points per game for the last month, which would rank them in the league's top five over an entire season. But they just don't yet have that great soloist, the player who can hit the highs and carry the group, like Toronto's DeMar DeRozan did Wednesday—and Bradley Beal and C.J. McCollum the previous two games—in the Raptors 124-115 victory over the Bulls.

The Bulls got 26 points from Justin Holiday, 22 points and 12 rebounds from Lauri Markkanen and 20 points from Nikola Mirotic. Mirotic, though, continued to have back issues and wore a wrap at times. They had 29 assists and made 13 three pointers, six for nine for Holiday, and were tied at 90 entering the fourth quarter in another appealing and competitive game.

And while Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg lamented sieve quality defense after the first quarter when the Bulls led 31-21, the Bulls too often have to do too much precisely right to succeed against teams with the NBA's individual elite.

Justin Holiday standing

"We have to be right all the time (to win)," acknowledged Holiday, who had those 26 points on just 10 shots, three times fouled shooting three pointers, a specialty of his. "We just didn't come out and play the way we were supposed to defensively after the first quarter. Falling asleep a little bit, got hit in the mouth tonight. Guys in the locker room were talking about we have to be better. We don't have to be perfect, but defensively we have to make sure we are doing everything right; can't just go out and think we are just going to outscore people. We're doing better than we were then, but we're still not where we need to be."

The Bulls dropped to 13-25 with their third consecutive loss. The Raptors are second in the Eastern Conference at 26-10, winners of 15 of their last 18. One big reason is DeRozan, who has moved into the MVP conversation this season with Toronto's exceptional play.

The Bulls have been more like a terrific relay team lately, handing off the scoring baton from game to game, sometimes Mirotic or Markkanen. Lately it has been Kris Dunn often. But the point guard had foul problems again, shooting one of six for two points with eight assists.

Nikola Mirotic driving the basketball.

Though Mirotic had 20 points, many were late after the Raptors ran away to start the fourth quarter and were leading by a dozen points five minutes into the fourth and by 10 with 5:30 left. The Bulls then didn't get back into a single digit deficit until Holiday's three with 10 seconds left.

An obvious disparity, and uncharacteristic for the Bulls lately was their bench being outplayed. The Raptors got a career high 25 points and 13 rebounds from Delon Wright, who roughed up Bulls players on the boards with second shots. Undrafted 5-10 guard Fred Van Vleet had 13 points in 17 minutes driving through the Bulls like they were the I-Pass lane on his way back along I-90 to his native Rockford.

"I thought we played a great first quarter," said Hoiberg. "I thought we came out of the gate with great focus, great energy, defensive intensity; we were getting out in transition, we were sharing the ball. And then that all went away to start the second. We gave up 103 (points, at least 34 each quarter) after giving up a 21-point first quarter. The biggest thing we've talked about the last few days is coming out with a defensive edge. When we weren't scoring, especially at the start of that fourth, we just went to straight isolation basketball. That's not us. And they took advantage."

The Raptors even with fewer assists moved the ball exceptionally well, creating open shots and making 15 of 38 threes. The Bulls showed their developing offensive prowess by making so many tough shots against an active Raptors defense. The Bulls without that big time scorer they can count on regularly simply have to do so much more.

Is he on the way?

It's unfair to expect that quickly from Zach LaVine, but it sounds like he's getting close to a return.

Hoiberg said before the game LaVine would travel with the team to Dallas and Indiana later this week and then the management and staff would have a summit with LaVine early next week about his return.

Meanwhile, the Bulls remain much better, dedicated, passionate, capable of competing without being taken for granted. It was a game against one of the league's hottest teams with 20 lead changes and 10 ties.

"Obviously, even though we lost these (three) games, we are not playing like we were then," agreed Holiday. "We're not as bad as we were. That's on both ends. Even though we lost these games, we are in the games, teams are respecting us when they play us and we're fighting back. But sometimes we have lulls. Tonight the last three quarters, we did not play well defensively. We have to get it together to win games."

Lauri Markkanen handling the basketball.

It was an encouraging beginning for the Bulls, especially Markkanen with his shooting stroke pure after the Bulls got the Raptors defense to retreat early going to Lopez. Markkanen also was on the boards, often the Bulls best rebounder lately.

"I take a lot of pride in rebounding," said Markkanen, leading the team at 7.6 per game. "The team with more rebounds usually wins; that's one thing I concentrate on to help the team. We started good, but then we relaxed a little and that can't happen."

The Bulls led 31-21 after one quarter, also with Valentine getting 14 points and seven rebounds becoming a steady contributor. But it was the reserves, who have been excellent in recent weeks, who were erratic and often selfish, too much one-one-one play with expansive dribbling and rushed shots late in the clock.

The biggest thing we've talked about the last few days is coming out with a defensive edge. When we weren't scoring, especially at the start of that fourth, we just went to straight isolation basketball. That's not us. And they took advantage.

Coach Fred Hoiberg

Toronto opened the second quarter with a 12-2 run and opened the fourth quarter—the quarters when Hoiberg goes to the bench—with a 16-4 run. If the game was decided anywhere, it was in those two stretches.

"A lot of that was our second unit," acknowledged Hoiberg. "I didn't think they shared the ball the way they had been. They've been excellent, playing with really good chemistry, but we did not have that with that group tonight."

The Bulls recovered to lead 59-56 at halftime as Dunn, though missing from the field, had slick passes, one for a Paul Zipser dunk to get the second quarter lead back. Valentine had a pair of driving scores and Mirotic found the range with a three. Dunn drew a fourth foul in the third quarter as the Bulls were building up an 80-71 lead only to see DeRozan hit the Bulls for 10 straight points, the strength of those special players. They carry teams for stretches on their own, giving others time to rest and recover their games. Still, the Bulls stayed stride for stride as a Holiday three tied the game at 90 after three quarters. DeRozan had 35 points with five of eight threes and 10 of 10 at the free throw line.

Denzel Valentine handling the basketball.

And then in a few moments it was over.

"We're tied going into the fourth," Hoiberg noted. "So the fourth quarter comes down to…you have to have your winning mentality. You have to go out and play the right way. You have a thin margin for error. They were the team that came out and threw the first blow and we never recovered."

Just too many sour notes this time from a band that must maintain its harmony.

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