Rarely opting to do things the easy way, Chicago held on for a 94-92 road win against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre.
Pushing All-Star Break behind them, the Bulls are keying in on the second half of the season. With the Raptors currently sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference standings, this was a big game for Chicago.
It was also a hard-fought battle that included seven technical fouls, a wild comeback in the final minutes from the Raptors, a huge fourth quarter from D.J. Augustin and a game-clinching defensive possession from Jimmy Butler.
Starting off the season in a Raptors uniform, Augustin was a casualty of an early December trade and found himself without a job after Toronto waived him to make room for incoming players in a swap that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings. Quickly scooped up by the Bulls, Augustin got a little revenge against the Raptors by pouring in 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter in his first visit back.
“Just being aggressive,” Augustin said of his fourth quarter scoring burst. “Thibs wants me to be aggressive. I play with great guys on the floor who find me for open shots, get me open for pick and rolls. We just play well as a team.”
[RELATED: Augustin shines against former team]
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau credited Augustin’s confidence and heart for the fourth-quarter shooting exhibition that helped his team snag the victory.
“He’s got a lot of courage,” Thibodeau said. “Not afraid. Can shoot the ball. And, again, I think when you get a team that’s committed to playing for each other and playing to each other’s strengths, I think his teammates look for him. They know how to get him open, he knows how to get open, very clever.”
Joakim Noah agreed with Thibodeau’s assessment of Augustin’s confidence aiding his play of late. He also thinks it’s due to the fact that Augustin is a regular in the rotation and knows he’ll be on the floor getting time each night.
“That’s the most important thing,” Noah said. “The more you play, the more confident you are. The more you can get into a rhythm. He knows, down the stretch, the ball’s in his hands. It must be a good feeling. Especially coming from where he came from, where he wasn’t playing, he didn’t have an opportunity with the Raptors. I’m sure just being able to come back here, playing in a big game, a game of this magnitude, to be able to play that well down the stretch must be an unbelievable feeling.”
While the Bulls jumped out to an early lead, things got tense in the game's closing minutes, as both teams came up with clutch moments. Thanks to a flurry of baskets from DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors trimmed the Bulls lead down as the clock ticked away.
Toronto had an opportunity to win the game, trailing by one with 2.9 seconds left as DeRozan rose to shoot a jumper, but was swarmed by Jimmy Butler who was able to block his shot attempt. After Butler was fouled and made one of two free throws, Toronto couldn’t connect from half court at the buzzer, and the Bulls got an important victory to put the just half a game back of the Raptors for the third spot in the Eastern Conference.
While acknowledging that DeRozan is a talented player, Butler wouldn’t budge on what it feels like to be tasked with guarding an explosive scorer down the stretch.
“I feel like I can guard anybody,” Butler said.” Scorer, passer, big man. [DeRozan’s] a really good player, but I’m not gonna say that I can’t guard anybody…I don’t care about the final possession, I’m just glad that we won the game. Block, whatever it may be, as long as we get the W I’m happy.”
DeRozan finished with a game-high 32 points, but struggled down the stretch.
Butler might have wanted to downplay his defensive stop on DeRozan, but his teammates were quick to deliver praise to the third-year swingman.
“[Toronto] made a run at the very end of the game, but Jimmy had a great play, basically to save the game for us,” Carlos Boozer said. “He got the block on DeRozan, game-winner. Game-winning defensive stop right there.”
Thibodeau was also pleased with the effort brought forth from Butler against one of the tougher assignments he’ll see in the Eastern Conference in All-Star guard DeRozan.
“I thought Jimmy defended him on several plays as well as you can, but he still has the ability to ruse up and make shots,” Thibodeau said. “He is a big-time player…there is constant pressure on you. Jimmy battled and that’s what I like about Jimmy’s mindset is he is going to keep coming.”
Three Bulls scored 19 points or more, with Carlos Boozer leading the way with 20. Kirk Hinrich had 19 as he and Augustin combined to go 7-of-8 from 3-point range. Noah’s 13 assists were a career-high.