The Bulls took advantage of a severely shorthanded opponent for a third straight game on Thursday night in Tampa, using a complete team effort to earn a 122-113 victory over the floundering Raptors. Zach LaVine led seven Bulls in double figures with 22 points and 13 assists as Chicago shot 54.0% from the field, racked up 35 assists (Jimbo approved!) and won the battle of the benches by a whopping 47-20 count.
The final score was a bit closer than the game actually was given the Bulls held a commanding lead throughout most of it after a sluggish start saw them go down 16-7 early. LaVine woke the team up with a scoring surge as Chicago used a 24-6 run in the first quarter to take control, and the lead got to 20 by midway through the second quarter as the bench dominated.
The largest lead of the game was 22 points in the third quarter and then again early in the fourth, and the Bulls were never really threatened until a late 9-0 Raptors run made things semi-interesting with just under three minutes to play. A gaggle of Bulls missed layups opened the door for the Raptors to make things even closer with the score 115-108, but two empty possessions later and LaVine finally shut the door with five straight points to avoid an epic collapse.
Nikola Vucevic matched LaVine with 22 points while adding seven rebounds and four assists, but his defensive limitations were on display against a versatile starting frontcourt of Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher. Siakam didn’t hesitate to go right at Vucevic off the dribble and wound up with 27 points and eight rebounds, while Boucher had a career night with a monster 38 points and 19 rebounds. In fact, the Raptors outscored the Bulls by 16 points in Boucher’s 36 minutes.
But this is where the Bulls’ depth advantage came into play. Toronto only had eight available players, with Aron Baynes mostly a disaster as the backup big man and Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe the only other two Raptors available off the bench. Lauri Markkanen and Daniel Theis dominated in their reserve roles, with Markkanen going for an efficient 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting in 18 minutes and Theis putting forth a terrific all-around effort with 14 points (6-of-9 shooting), 10 rebounds, three assists and a plus-16 in the box score. Markkanen was a team-high plus-23 (LaVine was right behind at plus-20) as he scored both outside (2-of-4 from 3) and inside by finishing over smaller defenders on several aggressive moves to the basket. Coby White had a nice shooting game as well off the bench with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting from the field and 3-of-7 from 3, though he did have some ugly turnovers and bad fouls as black marks on his performance.
Still, getting that kind of efficient scoring from the bench was the difference for the Bulls and helped make up for the big Boucher and Siakam nights. Markkanen and White are starting to look more comfortable in these bench roles with a bit less pressure on them, and we’ll see if they can keep it up moving forward as Billy Donovan settles on his rotation. With Theis back from a one-game absence and Garrett Temple still out, Donovan stuck to a nine-man rotation with Troy Brown Jr. getting 14 minutes as the ninth man.
The Bulls were certainly helped in this game by the absences of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, with the Raptors’ starting backcourt duo of Malachi Flynn and Gary Trent Jr. combining for just 15 points on a woeful 5-of-25 shooting from the field. But after years of garbage basketball and limited rosters at this point in the season, it’s nice to see Chicago actually be the team to have a mostly healthy team taking advantage while playing in meaningful games.
The Bulls are now three games clear of the Raptors, one game back of the ninth-seeded Pacers and two games back of the eighth-seeded Knicks. A back-to-back in Atlanta against the Hawks is on deck, and it looks like they’re also going to be missing a number of key guys. John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kris Dunn (he hasn’t played this season) are all out, and Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari are questionable.
Keep stacking those wins.