Chicago Bulls

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."

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

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.

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

michaelporter.jpg
USA TODAY

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

2018 draft class is loaded at the top

Quietly, you can bet Bulls' front office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman had a little celebration after hearing that prep star Marvin Bagley III was going to graduate from high school early and enroll at Duke for the 2017-18 season, making him eligible for the 2018 draft.

Bagley, a 6'11 power forward from Los Angeles, is being compared to longtime NBA star Chris Bosh, right down to his smooth left-handed shooting touch. Bagley averaged 24.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and two blocked shots during his junior season for Sierra Canyon H.S. He's also fared well against NBA competition at the highly-regarded Drew League in L.A. this summer. Bagley’s physical tools are off the charts, and you can count on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski preparing him well for life in the NBA.

Most NBA scouts and execs expect the No. 1 overall pick to come down to either Bagley or Michael Porter Jr., who will play his one season of college basketball at Missouri. The 6'10 Porter averaged an amazing 34.8 points and 13.8 rebounds last season against Seattle high school competition. He's considered a more dynamic scorer than Bagley with more range on his jump shot. Some scouts believe he could quickly develop into one of the league's elite players with Kevin Durant-type length and shooting ability at the small forward position.

International swingman Luka Doncic is also highly coveted by NBA teams. The 6'8 swingman has excellent shooting range, and is also capable of creating his own shot with outstanding ball-handling ability. Forget the stereotype of European players being mechanical and unable to compete athletically, Doncic is capable of being an 18-20 point scorer in the NBA and should go in the top five next June. He's considered one of the best international prospects in the last decade.

Two 7-footers also will hear their names called early on draft night 2018. University of Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton averaged 19.8 points and 12 rebounds in high school last season, while Texas freshman center Mohamed Bomba has an incredible 7-foot-9 wingspan. Sure, the NBA has moved away from the traditional low post center, but teams are still looking to acquire agile big men like Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside. Depending on how they fare against top level college competition, Ayton and Bomba could round out the top five.

Other names to watch in the lottery portion of next year's draft include Texas A&M power forward Robert Williams, Michigan State's forward duo of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., and the latest one-and-dones from John Calipari's Kentucky program, center Nick Richards and small forward Jarred Vanderbilt.

In case you missed it, ESPN released its preseason win total expectations for the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, and the Bulls were dead last with a projected record of 26-56. Now, I'm not sure a team with veterans Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez and the three young players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota will be quite that bad, but if you're going to rebuild, the idea is to get the best draft pick possible, and the Bulls appear to be on course for a top-five selection depending on how the lottery falls.

If the Bulls are able to land an elite talent like Porter Jr., Bagley III or Doncic in the draft, then use their $40-50 million in cap space to land a couple of quality free agents, the rebuild might not be as painful as some fans are fearing.

Last dance for LeBron in Cleveland?

Well-connected NBA writer Chris Sheridan dropped this bomb on Twitter Wednesday, quoting an NBA source, "This will be LeBron's final season in Cleveland. He is 100 percent leaving. Relationship with owners beyond repair." Don’t forget, Sheridan was the first national writer to report James was going to leave Miami to go back to Cleveland in 2014, so his reports definitely warrant a little extra attention.

Okay, we've already heard countless rumors about James planning to join the Lakers after next season. He's built a mansion in Brentwood, is close with Magic Johnson and will be able to bring another superstar with him to L.A. like Paul George or Russell Westbrook. Plus, the Lakers have a number of talented young players in place like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. and a promising coach in Luke Walton.

Add in the likelihood Kyrie Irving will be traded before training camp opens and LeBron's long-standing poor relationship with Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert, and you have the perfect formula for another James' free agent decision next July. Although, I'm not sure why LeBron would want to go West, where Golden State is positioned to dominate the league for another five seasons, with strong challengers like the Rockets and Spurs still in place. 

But if we've learned anything from watching James over the years, he's clearly a man who wants to align the odds in his favor. So don't rule out anything when it comes to James' free agent decision. If the Cavs make a home run trade for Irving, maybe LeBron decided to plays out his career in his home state. If not, look for him to find a team with the cap space to bring in another top star to run with him.

Back in 2010, the Bulls carved out the cap space to add two max contract stars, but lost out to Pat Riley in Miami. This time around they won't be on James' July travel itinerary.

One thing we know for sure. Where LeBron plays in 2018 will be the number one story throughout the NBA season.

Report: Bulls expected to reach buyout agreement with Dwyane Wade

Report: Bulls expected to reach buyout agreement with Dwyane Wade

Dwyane Wade's homecoming may not last much longer. 

According to Nick Friedell's ESPN report, the Bulls are expected to reach a buyout agreement with the 12-time NBA All-Star "at some point in the next few months." 

The news comes two months after Wade picked up his player option, choosing $24 million over earning less on a more competitive team. 

If Gar Forman and John Paxson indeed decide to buy D-Wade out, the "Three Alphas," which consisted of Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, would all be out just one season after coming together. 

The buyout may also mean more ping-pong balls in next year's stacked draft