It was early – early in a game where "early" made a hasty exit. Up 2-0, Joakim Noah put a post-up move on Jonas Valanciunas and spun a left-handed shot overtop of the Toronto Raptors seven-footer. Four minutes later, it was 11-4 for the Chicago Bulls, proving three things:
First, God help any team that faces the Bulls after head coach Tom Thibodeau has had three days to work them in practice.
Second, the Memphis Grizzlies really must be a mess in the absence of Lionel Hollins.
Third, that gap you kept hearing about, the one between the top three teams and everybody else in the Eastern Conference? Yeah, it exists.
Even without injured star guard Derrick Rose, who was out with a right hamstring injury, the Bulls beat the Raptors 96-80 at the Air Canada Centre. Even with the undefeated Indiana Pacers beckoning, the Bulls defensive intensity and focus was squarely on the Raptors.
"We're in Toronto!" Thibodeau snapped before the game at a reporter who had dared to ask a question about the upcoming showdown with the Pacers, who have already handed the Bulls a 17-point loss. Everybody, it seems, received the message.
The Bulls (4-3) were driven; their head coach – who is all head, neck and chest – glaring at them from the sidelines, right hand twitching uncontrollably as the clock wound down on each possession. Five Bulls finished the game scoring in double figures, led by Luol Deng's 19 points. The Bulls bench, meawhile, out-scored the Raptors 19-10, with the Raptors reserves shooting a woeful 3-for-22 from the field. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said afterward that there was "nothing redeeming" about the game before remembering DeMar DeRozan's 37 points, 28 of which came in the second half.
"We were mentally fried ... physically fried ... you can't allow someone to come into your home and out-work you," Casey said. "That was not us. You have bad stretches like that, but not a whole game."
It was the start of a Raptors run where six of seven games will be at home, and when it's done, the team will be significantly closer to the mid-December, 45-day mark general manager Masai Ujiri has set, by which he expects to know what he has for 2013-14. Nights like Friday, when the Raptors (4-6) shot just 25.6 per cent in the first half, and started 1-for-11 in a 5-for-21 second quarter, must leave Ujiri putting his finger on the destruct button. Ujiri isn't interested in a seventh- or eighth-place finish and being first-round playoff roadkill, and his team is now 0-3 in games against the East's best (Miami Heat, Pacers and Bulls).
The Raptors beat the Grizzlies 103-87 on the road last Wednesday, and got everybody worked up. But perhaps that's explained by all those whispers about the Grizzlies looking wayward due to the absence of their former head coach (Hollins) as it is by any Raptors brilliance. The Bulls didn't have their point guard; the Raptors had theirs, although Kyle Lowry had one of those inconsequential performances (six points, eight assists) that seeps throughout the entire team.
The Bulls were without Rose, yet it was Toronto that was stagnant offensively in the first half. Casey put Tyler Hansbrough on the court along with Valanciunas to stop the first-quarter bullying, tried a zone defence to start the second and ran out his second unit in desperation. But that unit has no point guard and no finisher. "We're playing as casually as we've played," Casey said in a televised interview after the Raptors came out for the second half.
And that's the most disappointing thing about the Raptors' performance. The officiating crew let the teams play under the boards. It was a night when graft and grit might have carried the day for the home team against a club that was winless in three road games and came into the night 28th in team scoring, but none of the Raptors – until DeRozan started to go off late in the third quarter – answered the call.
The man of many points was a man of few words. His performance was, DeRozan said, about "the will to win." About "trying to energize my team."
The Raptors play Sunday against the Portland Trailblazers, and it will take some kind of performance to remove the stain from this one. When Ujiri sits down for the day of reckoning, he will remember Friday. It would be difficult not to.
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