Rose-less and at times looking completely hopeless, the Bulls played down to the level of their opponent, an NBA no-no among elite teams looking to impose their will early and often.
More than any jumper or defensive stop produced by the visitors, it was Chicago’s cavalier play in the absence of Derrick Rose, who continues to nurse a sore groin, that gave the Raptors life.
But Toronto did play well, responding to every Bulls’ run, leading by as many as double digits and turning a routine Saturday night of hoops into a riveting event that would be decided in the final seconds on the game’s final shot.
As fate would have it, a sequence that pretty much summed up Toronto’s plight, the last shot in regulation wouldn’t drop, forcing a five-minute overtime, where it would be decided, literally, at the buzzer on a Luol Deng put-back on a C.J. Watson miss.
Chicago would win 102-101, but it did not deserve to win.
Toronto should have won had it converted its free throws in overtime, missing three of four attempts, had the ball bounced it way, but every loss, no matter how painful, adds more ping-pong balls in the draft lottery.
The night was far from pretty with missed shots aplenty and turnovers galore, but there was an edge and an ending that created a decent theatre.
“We had too much to overcome,’’ began Dwane Casey, who drew up a brilliantly designed late-game play on the end line that freed up Andrea Bargnani, whose perimeter heave went halfway in, only to go out.
“We were short-handed, we had guys playing out of position, back-to-back, we had everything go against us, but we showed heart and toughness,’’ added Casey.
It’s Casey’s mental toughness and leadership that has carried the Raptors this season, a guy whose work cannot and simply should not be overlooked amid the losing.
His game management is impeccable, his feel for tempo and body language solid and his late-game play calling second to none.
Casey got virtually everything from the players who were available.
DeMar DeRozan would have tied Alvin Williams’ iron-man streak had the third-year wing been able to play.
Typical of Toronto’s lost season, DeRozan was a no-go after turning an ankle in Friday’s win over the visiting Knicks on a night when the team’s starting off-guard poured in 30 points.
The team is hopeful DeRozan will be available on Monday when the Orlando Magic help tip off a five-game homestand for the Raptors, who continue to audition players for next year.
Moving forward, which is all the Raptors have at this point, it’s clear Casey is the right man for this rebuild job as he continues to develop a culture of defence.
While his moments of defensive awareness can be cleaned up, DeRozan’s offence has expanded and he’s developed what Casey describes a good balance between opting to heave perimeter jumpers and attack the rim by putting the ball on the floor.
The jury, though, is still out on Jerryd Bayless, who also missed Saturday night’s tip against the Bulls.
Bayless, who is nursing a hip flexor, found a nice rhythm as the team’s starting point guard when Jose Calderon was sidelined with an ankle injury.
Against the defensively strong Bulls, the Raptors had no true backup at the point, having to go with Gary Forbes when Calderon needed a breather.
So thin was Toronto’s roster that James Johnson had to initiate the offence at times.
A key point in the evening arrived with 1:28 left in the half when Joakim Noah was ejected following two technicals, the first when he complained on a foul when Bargnani took Noah off the dribble, the second when Noah threw the ball at official Courtney Kirkland.
The NBA will review the incident and should suspend Chicago’s starting centre for his petulance and ignorance.
Without Noah, the Bulls began the second half by going small, a move that forced Casey to go with Amir Johnson.
With no bench to speak of, Casey went with Calderon, Bargnani, Forbes, James Johnson and Amir Johnson until Ed Davis entered the game with 3:15 left in the third in a one-possession game.
Davis would respond by draining a face-up jumper and flushing home a powerful dunk he’d finish with an and one, Toronto’s only trip to the chartiy stripe in the period.
And back and forth the teams would go, unable to create any separation, except late-game suspense when the homeside couldn’t buy a basket and got lucky when James Johnson and Forbes combined to miss four three throws.
Toronto played well defensively on Chicago’s final possession in overtime, only to see Deng release the ball a millisecond from the end.