The Chicago Bulls own the Toronto Raptors. Last night's 116-103 drubbing solidified as much. From match-ups to schemes to player ability, the Bulls are simply the better basketball team between the two. The Raptors -- truly a darling bunch -- have hit what I like to call the 82-game threshold. Well, they actually hit it back in January of this season. See it all started when they traded away Rudy Gay in December of 2013. The aftermath of that trade saw the Raptors go on the best 82-game stretch of basketball that the franchise has ever seen. From January of 2014 to the end of December 2014, the Raptors went 57-27 in the regular season (there's slight overlap, it's not exactly 82 games, but you get the picture.) That's nearly a 60-win team. However, since January of this season, the Raptors are 18-22. They've definitely hit that wall, and now they're staring a potential first round playoff exit in the face. Which, speaking of...
1) Bring On The North
The Bulls convincingly swept the season series against Toronto (4-0). They've had their two best offensive quarters -- December 22nd's franchise-record 49-point fourth quarter, and last night's 39-point fourth quarter performance -- of the season come against Toronto. Granted, the Raptors haven't had their best player, Kyle Lowry, each of the last two times these teams have played, but in the interest of fairness, the Bulls were also without Derrick Rose for both. But, more to the point: I'd like nothing more than to see the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, the only way that'll happen is if the Bulls drop to the five seed and Washington leapfrogs Toronto for the third seed.
The Raptors can't finish lower than the four seed because they'll be a division winner (#EliminateConferences), so that's the first snag. But also, this hypothetical Bulls-Raptors playoff series is depending on Washington -- who has now lost four straight -- to start playing good basketball, and that seems unlikely. And lastly, Chicago probably won't overtake Cleveland for the division. Even if they did, that means Chicago would be the two seed and Toronto won't drop all the way to seven. So basically, Bulls-Raptors is a pipe dream.
And it stinks, because I'm honestly unsure how much better the Raptors could've played last night, and they still lost. Yes, Toronto's defense was an abomination and collapsed late, but the Raptors hit some unbelievable shots for a solid three quarters. The kinds of shots that made it feel like it was just going to be 'one of those nights' for Toronto. And yet, they still couldn't beat Chicago.
2) Jimmy Back?
23 points (7-8 FG, 2-3 3PT, 7-9 FT), five rebounds, three assists, one turnover in 39 minutes. Yep, Jimmy is back. Although, as a quick aside, I've noticed that he's not totally comfortable yet on defense. More specifically, playing passing lanes. Jimmy's gambled on over a handful of passes since he's returned, and he's been about a split-second too late on each attempted steal. Jimmy's timing is just a tad off, and I'm thinking he'll start picking off some of these passes that, ordinarily, he gets no problem.
3) "Play" For Pau
I love when this happens. Happens almost once a game. Pau gets stuck so far behind the offense -- mostly because he's slow as hell, but in the example above it's cause he nearly crashes into the Toronto bench chasing a loose ball -- that once he trails into the play, he gets a wide open jumper. I personally want to believe Pau's man simply just forgets about him. Like, Pau's man must think to himself, there's no way it takes this dude eight seconds to get down the floor, where the hell is he? Oh well. Gotta protect the rim.
4) Speed Up The Raptors!
Speed the Raptors up on defense, good things will surely come of it. A little ball movement goes a long ways against this defense. The sequence below comes after four passes have already been made, and the Raptors' perimeter defense is just all out of sorts. Two guys race out towards the ball. Terrence Ross is left in no man's land. Mirotic ends up wide open at the top of the key. Just bad:
5) Can't Leave Niko
There's some growing concern that since Nikola Mirotic isn't converting on a high rate of threes, teams will simply stop showing him the respect of a good shooter. Well, I'm not so sure about that. This is what it looks like when there's a specific designation on a player (i.e. don't leave him open for a shot):
Joakim Noah gets an easy layup on this play because Patrick Patterson is unable to leave his assignment, Mirotic, in the corner alone. On literally the next play, this is what it would look like if teams were OK with leaving Niko alone:
To Kirk's credit, he made not only this particular shot but he has been shooting a lot better as of late.