Bulls lose in Toronto

It was yet another halftime lead that slipped away in the third quarter leaving the Bulls in what is all too familiar territory.

With 7:15 remaining Sunday in what would be the Bulls 129-102 loss to the Toronto Raptors, Thad Young closing out his best game as a Bull by trying to take a charge may also have closed out his Bulls career. The official signaled the offense foul against surprising Raptors high scorer Terence Davis. Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who will coach the East All-Stars in Chicago later this month, bounced up to challenge the decision. His objection was accepted and Young was dismissed from the game with his sixth foul after scoring a team-high 21 points.

With the NBA trade deadline, Thursday before the Bulls play their next game, that may have been the last the Bulls see of Young. Or perhaps Denzel Valentine, Kris Dunn, and Tomas Satoransky. Or that when play resumes in the United Center Thursday against Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans, they all might be there again for what they hope will be a run for the playoffs despite dropping to a season-worst 14 games under .500 at 19-33.

"I will handle it appropriately with the information that is out there," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said about addressing trade speculation in this final week of NBA trading. "I'm always honest and direct with our guys with what is going on. So if there's a moment when that needs to be done I will do it."

Though trade rumors have been limited around the NBA, especially in the wake of the recent deaths of former commissioner David Stern and last week Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, Young's name has come up most often among Bulls players because of his veteran experience and savvy. Young is starting now with Lauri Markkanen injured and out about a month with a pelvic stress reaction.

But Markkanen will return and remains the Bulls future at power forward. Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. likely will return after the All-Star break. The Bulls haven't disclosed yet Dunn's status after his knee injury in Brooklyn Friday. He returned to Chicago for tests and didn't play Sunday in Toronto.

Despite a devastating second-half collapse once again after the Bulls led 63-60 at halftime, Young was at his best making nine of 12 shots and three of five threes, equalling Zach LaVine for a team-high with seven rebounds and adding two steals. Young has scored in double figures in the last six games, all starts. He's averaged 12.7 points on 56 percent shooting, close to his career averages after he's been somewhat misused as a standstill perimeter player most of the season.

Which is why there have been reports that several teams have been scouting the Bulls with interest in the veteran. Young earlier this season expressed a desire to play more. But he has been loyal to the organization after signing a three-year free-agent deal.

"I understand it's a business," Young said recently. "If I'm traded, I have to go. If not, then I'm here with my brothers, my teammates and ready to fight. My focus is on playing for the Bulls and helping us get some wins. If they have to make a business decision, I understand."

Which makes this is a crucial week for the Bulls.

They're still only three and a half games out of eighth in the Eastern Conference with the eighth-place Orlando Magic slumping and Kyrie Irving with a knee sprain for the seventh-place Nets four games ahead. One good week with the return of Markkanen, Porter, and Carter could change all that. Though the Bulls Sunday just did drop to 1-20 against teams with winning records, suggesting perhaps structural issues.

Should the Bulls make a trade for the future and try to fortify around their young players like LaVine and Markkanen? Or stand pat and maybe try to supplement the additions of Young and Satoransky with another veteran to carry them through until the other starters return? It will make for a week of rumors and speculation, if not certainty.

You could sense it among the players and even see it in their faces, especially with Zach LaVine. He had 18 points to end his run of 17 consecutive games and all of January scoring at least 20 points every game. But the Raptors eventually showed a full-court press against LaVine, who played a sophisticated all-around game with seven rebounds, seven assists, and three steals.

But you could see the frustration and strain in LaVine's eyes, his usually joyful twinkle seemly dulled by the endless series of disappointments. LaVine sat unusually expressionless as the rout played out down the stretch with the Bulls bench emptied with almost five minutes remaining and trailing 121-96. Without Carter and Dunn, the defense has shattered to among the poorest in the NBA. Opponents are averaging 126 per game the last three, all losses.

"We threw it away," observed LaVine in an unusually dull monotone. "Same story that we do most of the games we lead at halftime or going into the third quarter. You've got to figure out how to stop doing that."

"They do a good job," said LaVine. "They're a championship team. They know to take away the first option and they're going to take the ball out of my hand or show gaps to try to make me force shots. I just try to play the right way and it didn't work out today.

"I'm just upset," said LaVine when asked about his dour mood. "It gets frustrating when you lose games. I've been going through it the last three years here. It just gets frustrating. It's like anybody else in our position. We're human. You have human reactions and feelings. I get frustrated eventually."

It's certainly understandable as LaVine seems to have tried everything from scoring among the best in the league to Sunday running the offense effectively and helping defensively with double teams that surprised the Raptors. But to no avail, as even without regulars Marc Gasol and Norman Powell, the Raptors with a bench of undrafted players Davis, Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas outscored the Bulls reserves 66-30. The Raptors, 36-14, also got 17 points from Pascal Siakam and 16 from Serge Ibaka. Chandler Hutchison had 17 points for the Bulls and Ryan Arcidiacono got his guy with 12 to match Toronto's Fred VanVleet.

Coby White also had 12 points with four of 11 on threes, further making it a mockery White was excluded from the All-Star weekend rookie/sophomore game. The NBA's snub is particularly egregious. White is second among rookies in threes made. White leads rookies in games played as he hasn't missed any. He is fifth in total assists, top 10 in total rebounds and top 10 in points despite not being in the top 10 in average minutes per game.

It's been that kind of a season for the Bulls, productive in some respects without the expected results for the work.

And so it was again as the Bulls despite the injury hardships played one of their best halves in a difficult arena against a team going for its 11th consecutive victory and 12th straight over the Bulls.

Led by Young with a dozen first-quarter points operating out of his favored post positions, the Bulls after falling behind 17-8 scored 10 straight and trailed 32-29 after one. The Bulls were moving the ball well and would have 16 first-half assists. They took advantage of seven first quarter Toronto turnovers with the Raptors handling the ball like it was a football for an ideal Super Bowl Sunday matinee.

With a 17-6 start to the second quarter took a 46-43 lead. Arcidiacono made a trio of threes in that run. Daniel Gafford made a brief return from injury and then rolled an ankle, but he did return later in the game. He had one point in nine minutes. Leading the defending champions by three at halftime, the Bulls deserved to be high stepping like Shakira.

"First half it was drive, drive, drive, kick, drive, kick," said Toronto's Nurse about the Bulls. "Give them credit, I was like: ‘Man, they are playing great.' They were really driving it hard, finding the right guys, knocking down shots, zipping it around and they had us scrambling big time in the first half. They were playing great and we had to get that under control a little bit."

It's what's happened so often to the Bulls this season, especially now with so many regulars injured.

Opponents check the record and injury list and don't expect the passion. But then they get the Bulls with the execution. Show over!

The Bulls have stayed with their trap of the ballhandler, which is less effective without Dunn. Boylen has emphasized the ultimate next man concept by attempting to place different talents into similar roles. So to start the third quarter, the Raptors on offense had Ibaka as the screener. He's a reasonable playmaker. But primarily they had him roll out of the trap. With his size, the Bulls defensive help player was too small. He went inside for three scores on their first five possessions. Siakam also went to the boards as the Raptor hit the Bulls 17-4 to open the second half.

"The first half the ball was moving," said Boylen. "Made open shots. I thought the third quarter we had the same plays to make. We didn't make them and I thought we dropped our heads a little bit in that third when the ball wasn't going in and they made their run. We've got different guys playing, new guys playing and we got guys out. We've got to learn how to play in that third quarter when the ball is not going in."

Bulls vs. Raptors Recap

Toronto had something to do with that as well as they denied LaVine. Nurse has become one of the top defensive coaches in the NBA, probably the only one to limit Giannis Antetokounmpo as the Raptors did in last year's playoffs. LaVine on several occasions Sunday saw similar defenses, once with five Raptors surrounding him in a tight circle. LaVine didn't force anything, moving the ball intelligently. But the Bulls quantity three-part shooting game failed them again, the Bulls 15 of 48 on threes. The Bulls did get within five points late in the third quarter before Toronto eased ahead 95-85 after three quarters. When the Raptors opened the fourth with back to back threes and an 11-2 run, it felt like the groundhog day once again. Same result.

It's perhaps why LaVine just stared straight again at the end. It feels cold and grey and keeps repeating.