Bulls close out 2013 with loss to Raptors

Bulls close out 2013 with loss to Raptors
December 31, 2013, 9:15 pm
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The final contest of 2013 for the Bulls (12-18) ended on a sour note, as a fourth-quarter rally by the resurgent Raptors (14-15) led to an 84-79 defeat Tuesday night at the United Center, closing out what was a challenging calendar year.

Whether the beginning of the New Year’s Eve matchup could be termed a defensive masterpiece or, more accurately, poor offensive basketball, it was a low-scoring affair at the outset of the contest, with both teams combining to make three of the game’s first 18 shots. All-Star small forward Luol Deng (16 points), in his return to the Bulls’ lineup after missing the last five games with a left Achilles’ injury, was a relative bright spot in the early going, as was Raptors’ swingman counterpart DeMar DeRozan (11 points), who played the aggressive brand of basketball that’s served Toronto well all season, especially since Rudy Gay was jettisoned to Sacramento via trade.

The visitors otherwise enjoyed balanced scoring, particularly from the second unit, and took a slim lead and despite the wing duo of Jimmy Butler (15 points, seven rebounds) and Mike Dunleavy Jr. (13 points) coming alive late in the opening period, the Bulls trailed, 21-16, at the conclusion of the first quarter.

An 10-0 run to begin the second period propelled the Bulls ahead of their guests, as the bench quartet of the sharpshooting Dunleavy, usual suspect Taj Gibson (12 points), floor general D.J. Augustin and grizzled veteran Nazr Mohammed led the way. Gibson, in particular, was feeling it and had the hot hand, but the Bulls’ bench as a whole was more potent offensively, a side effect of Deng’s return making the squad more complete from top to bottom.

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But the Raptors kept battling and behind the trio of DeRozan, young center Jonas Valanciunas (15 points, nine rebounds) and powerful point guard Kyle Lowry (13 points, six assists), Toronto never let the Bulls build a double-digit lead. At the intermission, however, the Bulls were able to maintain a 42-36 advantage.

After the break, the high activity level of All-Star center Joakim Noah (seven points, 16 rebounds, six assists), mostly manifested in his rebounding numbers, and Butler’s continued aggressiveness buoyed the Bulls. While Toronto’s balanced attack and refusal to be cowed on the interior enabled the Raptors to stay within close contact, the reserve tandem of Gibson and Dunleavy again made an impact in the third quarter, resulting in the Bulls clinging to a 62-57 lead heading into the final stanza.

The start of the fourth quarter saw the Bulls surrender their lead, courtesy of a 21-4 extended run by the Raptors, keyed by the interior play of Valanciunas and a cadre of reserves, including backup point guard Greivis Vasquez, stretch power forward Patrick Patterson and ex-Bulls swingman John Salmons. Thanks to the Bulls’ ball-security issues, suddenly-porous defense and inefficient shooting, Toronto’s lead ballooned to double digits, putting the Bulls in the position of having to fight an uphill battle as the game entered its stretch run.

A Butler transition layup, plus the foul, cut the Bulls’ deficit to five points, 80-75, with 2:01 remaining, but after a defensive stop, Deng mishandled a sharp interior pass from Gibson, leading to the team’s 15th miscue of the evening. Following a timeout, the Raptors returned the favor, turning it over on the subsequent inbounds pass with 1:27 to go in the contest.

Deng got a chance to redeem himself and after getting fouled, knocked down a pair of free throws to make it an 80-77 game with 1:24 on the clock. On the next trip down for the Raptors, Gibson fouled DeRozan, his old college teammate, who split a pair of attempts from the charity stripe, making it 81-77 with under a minute to play.

Sandwiched around an empty trip to the foul line for Salmons, back in his old stomping grounds, were two failed possessions for the Bulls, so the scoreboard didn’t change until Valanciunas hit two shots from the line with 27.2 seconds remaining to seal the deal.