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By Sam Smith | 3.26.2015 | 2:56 a.m. CT
It was a good day Wednesday to be a Chicago Bull. It’s not something that’s been said all that much during the 2014-15 NBA season.
The Bulls finished off a season sweep of the Toronto Raptors with a huge fourth quarter and 116-103 victory on a season best 60.8 percent shooting. That gave the Bulls a solid lead over Toronto for third place in the Eastern Conference at 44-29. It comes with the Bulls getting to their biggest break of the season, one game in the next six days and just two games left in their last nine against teams with winning records. It begins to bring into view a first round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, who have slumped since the All-Star break. And all this coming on a day when Derrick Rose said he’s within days of being back practicing with the team and then perhaps a week or two before playing again, likely with a few games left in the season.
It left a buoyant Bulls team getting ready to return to the United States in a lot better shape than the American army in the War of 1812, which pretty much got run out of Canada. It seems like the Bulls haven’t lost in Canada since then as the Bulls won their fourth straight in Toronto and fifth straight overall over the Raptors and are 21-15 on the road this season.
“We don’t play to lose,” said Jimmy Butler, who had a team leading 23 points in his second game back from his elbow injury. “I think we can beat anybody. I don’t think it matters what seed we end up. We just want to win as many games as we can and get into a rhythm getting into the playoffs.
“When we settle down and guard, offence comes easy for the group of guys we have in this locker room,” said Butler. “When we guard and rebound we put ourselves in a great position to win games. We have so many unselfish guys that if they have a good shot you’ll make one more pass to a guy that has a great one. I think that’s what this team is all about and then we just have so many guys that do so many things well that it makes everybody’s job a lot easier.”
In deference to our friends in Canada I’m going to spell offence and defence like they do, which was said to be one of the conditions of the treaty to end the war. Imagine how powerful we would be if we had more c’s? Though it was the Bulls defence down the stretch in the fourth quarter that was strong and brilliant in the sort of vital fourth quarter play that will be essential in the playoffs.
“I didn’t like our defence early in this game,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “But we are capable of playing really good defence.”
The Bulls did when it mattered, turning a four-point deficit with seven minutes left into a runaway victory as the Bulls shot 75 percent in the fourth quarter and held the primarily jump shooting Raptors to 33 percent.
“We have to understand that we are playing against teams like Chicago,” noted DeMar DeRozan, who had 20 points while Greivis Vasquez playing for injured Kyle Lowry had 22. “They are going to execute and run their bread and butter plays at the end of the game. We have to understand that they will pick it up offensively and that's when we have to pick it up defensively and try to stop them to give ourselves a chance to win.”
But the Bulls kept the Raptors from doing so on both ends in as good a closing quarter as they’ve had all season.
The run began with more clutch shooting from Kirk Hinrich, who is shooting 48 percent on threes in March, inside scores from Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell and Pau Gasol, a Mirotic three, a pair of threes from the irrepressable Aaron Brooks and Butler barging to the free throw line. The Raptors missed eight of their last 10 shots with three turnovers as the Bulls charitably left without taking Ontario.
“Our wing players were extremely effective and efficient in the fourth quarter, big shots,” said Gasol, who had 18 points, 10 in the first quarter when the Raptors took a bite out of the Bulls with a 29-20 lead. “Tony Snell played a great game; Jimmy also played very well. Mike (Dunleavy) also missed just one shot. Things went our way and we did a good job in the fourth. (Those players) were very efficient and very sharp for us.”
The Bulls got 17 points off the bench from Snell, who had been tentative in Butler’s return while going back to the bench, 16 points and five assists from Brooks and 15 points from Mirotic. Dunleavy, Butler and Snell combined to shoot 18 for 22 while Butler was seven of nine from the free throw line and added a pair of threes.
It was a significant game in that the Bulls showed offensive versatility and depth with defensive force and commitment.
“I think we’ve been executing well down the stretch,” said Joakim Noah, who returned after what clearly was a maintenance day for his knee. “Aaron hit some big ones, Pau hit some big ones. It was definitely an important win for us. I just needed a little rest; my body is feeling good. It’s down the stretch. I have to be smart.
“We just have to focus on us getting better,” said Noah, who had nine points, five rebounds and five assists. “We shot 60 percent in a big game; that’s pretty impressive. Guys are coming back from injuries. We feel we have the deepest team in the league. It’s a good feeling; we have a lot of weapons. We just have to keep polishing our games individually; it’s exciting.”
That excitement included the morning practice as Rose confirmed to reporters his rehabilitation from his meniscus tear is proceeding on schedule. He obviously could not declare a date of a return given he hasn’t practiced yet. But his indications were he’s looking forward to an expedited return.
"I’m feeling good,” Rose said before going through the light drill with the team. “I’m trying to do all the right things. Put all the positives in the bag and just try to go with it. Rehab is definitely a grind. But I’m getting used to it. The swelling is gone. So it's all about just getting on the court. If I don’t have any setbacks, I would say one to two weeks (to play after practicing). We can be really good. It’s just all about everyone being healthy, a little bit of luck and everyone staying together."
Could it be that the Bulls finally are getting healthy and playing their best at the close of the season?
The sense is they like their chances no matter what.
It's a subject of debate and speculation which is the best path to the Finals: Third and potentially meeting the Cavaliers in the second round? Or fourth and hosting Washington and delaying the Cavaliers, though the Bulls lost 4-1 to Washington last playoffs. It doesn't seem anyone is taking sides. While there's much debate about the NBA playoff format that has two or three East teams playing below .500 and in the playoffs, the Bulls could be caught in a goofy tiebreaker with the Raptors. Even though the Bulls swept Toronto, if there's a tie the Raptors could get the edge as a division winner. Even though basically no one else in the division is trying to win games.
“We want to get highest seed possible like everyone else,” said Gasol. “But you can’t focus on going for a specific seed. You have to put yourself in the best position and get to the highest level of basketball when the right time comes, which is the playoffs.”
The Bulls trailed 54-50 at halftime, though closing the gap after a hot start from Toronto’s Terrence Ross. Butler attacking the basket kept the Bulls in striking distance through three, trailing 82-77, before the Bulls shut down the crowd and the Raptors with defence and a lot of Brooks and Snell.
“I love Snelly Cat,” said Noah. “Somebody who has been busting his (butt), working hard. It’s good to see him play with so much confidence; he’s a big part of what we’re doing. When you make a run and the crowd is going crazy and then all of a sudden it’s silent or (they) feel that frustration in the air, there’s nothing better.
“I think we're a team that's gone through a lot," acknowledged Noah. "I think our time is coming. I think we're a very talented group. And when you put all that talent together and we all play for the right reasons, I think we're going to have a shot. That's all you can ask for."