Bulls withstand late flurry in 11th straight win over Raptors

Bulls withstand late flurry in 11th straight win over Raptors

At some point, it has to become absurd for the Toronto Raptors.

Certainly, they were smarting and angry over dropping a 16-point home fourth-quarter lead to the Detroit Pistons on Sunday night, but they had to be on high alert against a Bulls team they haven't beaten in more than two seasons.

But absurdity rarely has an acceptable explanation, and the Bulls' dominance over their friends from the north qualifies as such. The Bulls made the Raptors say "uncle" shortly after the opening tip for their 11th straight win in the series, a 105-94 decision Wednesday at the United Center in the Bulls' first home game after their disappointing western swing.

In the most recent evidence of mastery prior to Tuesday's game, the Butler did it, as in Jimmy Butler, who poured in 43 in a game that saw the Bulls come back from a 19-point third-quarter deficit, pushing the game into overtime before suffocating and frustrating the Raptors.

Tuesday, Butler didn't have to be Superman in his return from missing four of the last five games with a right heel injury, though he took the extra defensive attention to dish out a career-high 12 assists and scored 19 points, with 15 of those points coming from the free-throw line as he went just 2-for-10 from the field.

"The heel is good, all there is to say," Butler said. "There wasn't much pain at all. Now it's about getting a rhythm and getting back in shape."

As for his third-worst shooting night of the year, Butler said, "When you're shooting 2-for-10, I think you'd better get to the free-throw line. Other than that, everyone has a different way of changing the game. Getting to the free-throw line was the way to win."

The firepower came from the bench as Doug McDermott led the Bulls with 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting with five rebounds. The Bulls shot 41 percent from 3, their highest such clip in awhile.

Denzel Valentine hit two triples in the fourth and along with Butler helped withstand a rousing comeback when the Raptors finally woke up after being down 23 in the second half.  Butler hit four free throws in the last two minutes to push the Bulls' lead back to nine when the Raptors cut the lead to 94-89 with 2:31 left.

"We were getting stops, which allowed us to get into transition," said McDermott, who had an inside score and layup when the Raptors started charging midway through the fourth.

"It started with our defense and rebounding. We got out, and we were really unselfish. It was a great win."

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The Raptors cut down on the turnovers in the second half after having 13 in the first, methodically getting back into the game, cutting the lead to 88-80 with six minutes left and shutting off any semblance of a Bulls offense.

The Raptors weren't playing anywhere near their best basketball, but apparently something clicked about the guys who were beating them, as it was anything but the usual suspects for the Bulls doing the damage.

The Raptors shot 50 percent in the second half after shooting 41 percent in the first, hitting just enough triples to make the Bulls pay for their scrambling defense. Kyle Lowry caught fire after scoring five points in the first half, hitting four of those triples and cutting through the teeth of the Bulls' defense and finishing with 22 points in 37 minutes.

His All-Star teammate DeMar DeRozan couldn't shake from his first-half doldrums, missing 14 of his 19 shots and earning an ejection with 25 seconds left with two technical fouls of frustration. Norman Powell and Corey Joseph came off the bench to provide support when the Raptors looked quite lifeless and the Bulls looked well on their way to re-establishing whatever this level of success is against this particular opponent.

In this case, the Bulls were the ones leading by 20 well into the third quarter, courtesy of 12 first-half turnovers that allowed the Bulls to get out and running for the latter part of the half, leading 66-43 with 7:55 left in the third.

"The biggest thing was our energy. We made good, simple basketball plays in the first half," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We had good pace, and it started with our defense. We were really locked in."

Cristiano Feicio (10 points, six rebounds) had his own jam session off the bench, following up misses with thunderous dunks and playing above the rim in a way that likely precipitated the Raptors acquiring Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic earlier in the day for swingman Terrance Ross and a first-round pick.

"Cris was terrific, I thought. He was all over the floor," Hoiberg said. "He was up in his pick-and-roll coverage, we did a good job getting our hands on balls and that's what led to those transition baskets."

But Ibaka wasn't yet in uniform as the trade still has to be cleared through the league and physicals must be taken, so the Bulls took full advantage of the free real estate inside.

Taj Gibson (14 points, four rebounds) had more than his share of dunks on the fast break, many of the aided by the pace-pushing of Rajon Rondo, who had 12 points and hit two triples, the fourth time such an occurrence happened this season.

How bad of a night was it for the Raptors? Isaiah Canaan was about to take a foul with less than six seconds left as the Bulls had one to give before the penalty, and as he was grabbing Joseph, reserve big man Lucas Nogueira gave Canaan too much hip and was called for an illegal screen.

They made the Bulls do a little more than sweat and the Bulls had to earn the victory, but the Bulls are no closer to finding out any true answers before the All-Star break — other than the fact the Raptors have no answer for them.

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Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

If there's a more maddening player in the Eastern Conference than Nikola Mirotic, that player's psychologist should be getting paid double considering Bulls fans have been talking to themselves about Mirotic so much over the past three years.

And as they've reached no conclusion on Mirotic, along with many other sage minds, only one thing is for certain: March is his month.

Meaning it's the month where it becomes maddening to watch him play and probably equally as maddening for his teammates who've watched his inconsistencies for the better part of four months or so.

Averaging 16.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in 41 career March games, it's the only full month where Mirotic averages in double figures for his career—meaning there's a lot of inconsistencies to wade through to get to the proverbial pot of gold.

In 2014-15, he emerged as the NBA's best fourth-quarter scorer that month when the Bulls were without both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Last season, he came back fresh after an appendectomy took a big chunk of his year.

This year, there's no big macro reason. He's just playing definitively, making quick movements and it's paying off as his two best scoring games took place within a four-day span (28 against both Detroit and Milwaukee).

"Right now, you see I'm shooting without hesitation," Mirotic said to CSNChicago.com. "Just catch and shooting. It's a great feeling."

No word on whether Mirotic hears the fans in the arena or the twitterverse screaming for him to ditch the pump fake that he actually admits it got in his head, but this season has been a roller coaster of the most dramatic kind, as the Bulls are still vying for playoff positioning with eight games remaining in the regular season.

"Sometimes, especially when I'm reading you guys (media), Niko pump fake, pump fake," Mirotic said with a smile. "Okay, no more pump fakes, just fire that ball. I'm laughing because you guys are (right)…that's true. You guys want me to shoot. It doesn't look good when you pump fake every time you have a wide-open shot."

Being penciled in as a training camp starter due to the need for floor spacing, Taj Gibson quickly outplayed Mirotic for the power forward spot. Then Mirotic's up and down, down and up, season began.

Kind of like his pump fake that often drew more defensive attention for it's predictability than effectiveness, stability has been hard to find for a player many have been waiting on since the day he was drafted in 2011.

"I know the defenses are ready for my pump fake so now just like, shoot the ball," Mirotic said. "I've been spending a lot of hours working on my shot before practice, after practice, trying to catch the feeling."

Better late than never or too late?

That's the question surrounding Mirotic and he knows it, being aware of his status as a restricted free-agent-to-be, along with his trade value a month ago being so low, the Bulls could only get a future second-round pick for him from teams.

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With the Bulls having so many questions going into the future, who knows if they want to go through the up-and-down, down-and-up cycle with a talented player yet again, with a big-time financial commitment.

In a sense, Mirotic knows he's left plenty on the table as far as his play through the years and seems to be content with playing with a sense of freedom as the season concludes, whether he's back with the Bulls or not for next year and beyond.

"I just wanna leave a good impression for the Bulls," Mirotic said. "Whatever decision they make. It's been a pleasure. A lot of people dream to be here, I was one of those guys when I was in Europe. I was really like, I wanna go there and play for the Bulls. The history they have. For me, it's a dream come true. Whatever decision they make, I make, whatever. I don't know. The years here have been great. I know it's been up and down. It's been a pleasure and I just wanna finish right."