Here’s the Stretch That Won the Chicago Bulls Their First Play-In Game
Let’s not avoid the elephant in the room. Yes, the Toronto Raptors missed 18 free throws and shot 50 percent from the free-throw line (thanks, Diar). We have to go all the way back to 1997 to find the last time the team missed that many shots from the charity stripe.
I’m not going to pretend like that didn’t help the Bulls become the first 10 seed to win a Play-In Tournament game. But I’m also not going to pretend that the Bulls didn’t play some of their best basketball of the season in the second half.
The fact of the matter is Chicago still had to claw back from down 19 points. And they had to do that against one of the NBA’s most versatile defenses. They deserve a lot of credit for keeping their head on straight and taking complete control of the game in the 4th quarter. Speaking of which, I wanted to highlight the specific stretch in that final frame that won them the game.
After Zach LaVine hit a no-hesitation pull-up 3-pointer to cut the Raptors’ lead to 87-82, the game could have gone two ways. Nick Nurse called a timeout to (hopefully) kill Chicago’s momentum and re-affirm his team’s game plan. Take care of the basketball and use length to disrupt the Bulls’ offense for 9 minutes more, and the Raptors would head to warmer weather.
What came next, however, was an avalanche.
A well-timed double team from Alex Caruso and Nikola Vucevic forced Pascal Siakam to make a tight pass to a cutting Jakob Poeltl. LaVine easily came up with the steal and turned on the jets, drawing a foul on Fred VanVleet to head to the charity stripe for what would be two of his 12 second-half made free throws.
On the next possession down the floor, it was Patrick Beverley who came up with the steal. While LaVine ultimately missed the fastbreak layup and Poeltl finished a 10ft shot on the other end, it was clear the rhythm was shifting in the Bulls’ favor.
DeMar DeRozan took a page out of LaVine’s textbook and drove to the rim for an easy score. 89-86. Nikola Vucevic came up with the steal of a bad entry pass from Fred VanVleet and Caruso broke free for the layup. 89-88. Siakam came down the floor at flew past the Bulls’ unprepared defense for a quick layup, but Caruso followed that up with a corner 3-pointer. 91-91.
Chicago called a timeout after Scottie Barnes swiftly gave the Raptors the advantage back. When they came out of that timeout, Caruso snatched a steal that led to a third-straight score. 93-93.
Two possessions later came arguably the biggest shot of the night. Still knotted up, DeRozan drew the illegal screen call on Poeltl. Stationed in the same spot where Caruso hit his 3 to tie the game, newbie Patrick Beverley went on to sink the go-ahead bucket. 96-93.
The Bulls would never be on the wrong side of the scoreboard again.
Why type out the play-by-play? Well, I think it’s the best way to show just how many players were involved in turning that game around. This sequence came in the heart of a 20-6 run in the 4th quarter. From the 8:42 mark to the 5:21 mark (a 3:21min span!), Chicago forced Toronto into six turnovers. Five of those turnovers were steals.
Vucevic had a steal. DeRozan had a strong drive to the rim. Caruso scored seven-straight points. Beverley hit the go-ahead 3-pointer. LaVine set the tone. Every player that was on the floor made an impact, and it made for one of the team’s best sequences of the season.
I put together some of the clips in the Twitter thread here, so feel free to check it out.
What does this mean in the grand scheme of things? Well … uh … probably nothing! It’s likely too little too late for the Bulls to prove to us that this core is worth any further investment. But as far as evaluating them in a vacuum, this was as encouraging of a run as we had seen all season, particularly when we consider the stakes.
I’m just hoping that the Bulls can turn the momentum they built in the second half into a full 48-minute performance against the Miami Heat. There is no doubt in my mind that if they play with this aggressive of a two-way effort, they can become the first 10 seed to clinch a playoff berth.