DeMar DeRozan returned to the city he helped turn into a basketball town and led the visiting Chicago Bulls to a 111-108 win over the Toronto Raptors.
DeRozan scored 26 points, including nine in the final 4½ minutes, to prevent the Bulls from blowing a game they led by 20 points in the third quarter.
“You live for those moments, honestly,” DeRozan said. “I get up for those moments. I love them, since I was a kid, just having that imagination, hitting big shots in a dark room. You kind of feed into that when 20,00 fans are out there watching.”
DeRozan’s late heroics, along with Lonzo Ball’s five 3-pointers and Zach LaVine’s 22 points, helped lift the Bulls to their first 4-0 start since 1996-97, when they began 12-0 on their way to 69 wins and their fifth NBA title.
The Bulls are the only unbeaten team in the Eastern Conference, which means … uh, what exactly?
“It don’t mean nothing,” DeRozan said. “We’ve got a long way to go and we’ve got a lot more to clean up and learn. It’s a long season, man. It’s great, but we’ve got a lot more basketball to go.
“We can’t carry this record like it’s some sort of badge of honor. We’ve got to understand the next game is going to be even harder.”
The Bulls have a two-day break before taking on the New York Knicks on Thursday night at the United Center on Joakim Noah Night. Then the degree of difficulty increases again with the Western Conference power Utah Jazz coming to the UC on Saturday, followed by a two-game trip to Boston and Philadelphia.
While it’s easy to say the Bulls should be 4-0 after games against the Raptors, New Orleans Pelicans and Detroit Pistons (twice), you can’t forget this is basically a brand-new team with a brand-new style of play, with DeRozan, Ball and Alex Caruso joining LaVine and Nikola Vučević as the focal points.
There’s plenty of work to be done, but despite committing 12 turnovers and being outrebounded 48-28, the Bulls did what they needed to do when it mattered, leaving Canada with a win and building a four-game winning streak for the first time since a seven-game streak in December 2017.
The Ball brothers weren’t competing against each other Monday night, yet it seemed like every time LaMelo Ball hit a 3-pointer for the Hornets in Charlotte, Lonzo answered with one of his own for the Bulls in Toronto. LaMelo finished with seven 3s in the Hornets’ overtime loss to the Boston Celtics, while Lonzo finished with five in the Bulls’ win.
It looked like another Bulls rout was in store until things turned sour. They led by 20 in the third quarter before the Raptors slowly whittled away, pulling to 97-95 with 4:49 left on a Ball turnover and lay-in by OG Anunoby.
DeRozan’s pull-up jumper ended a 15-2 Raptors run, and two free throws by Caruso after a steal and another midrange turnaround by DeRozan helped open things up again. But the Bulls let the Raptors creep back with some sloppy ballhandling in the final minutes, setting up the wild ending.
Ball’s unforced turnover on an arcing inbounds pass to LaVine went straight into the hands of Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes, who flew in for the jam to trim the deficit to 110-108 with 14.4 seconds left. Vučević split a pair of free throws with just under 10 seconds left to give the Raptors a chance to tie it, but after a timeout, 6-foot-1 guard Fred VanVleet missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer while being guarded by the 6-10 Vučević.
“Obviously any time a team gets down by 20, they’re going to pick up the defensive intensity, which they did,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “I felt for the most part early there in the third we weathered it, but to close the third and even starting the fourth, I felt we got stagnant.
“They were the aggressor. They had us back on our heels. You knew they were going to make a run. DeMar came in and kind of settled us with some of the plays he made the last three, four minutes, but with the ballhandling and the skills we have, we have to be better in those situations with the turnovers.”
DeRozan’s experience with winning games in that building turned out to be the Bulls’ saving grace. DeRozan said he was “just doing my job” at the end.
“It’s always my job, especially late game, close out the game, understanding what needs to be done to get to my spots and try to make big shots” he said. “It’s something that I’m not shy of (doing). I always want those moments and I understand the magnitude of it. … When the game turns that way, it’s on me to slow it down and look for my spots.”
In what has become an early season trend, LaVine started slowly and picked up the pace as the game wore on. He was held without a field goal until two minutes into the third quarter, but his 3-pointer with 5½ minutes left in the third moved him past Michael Jordan for fourth on the franchise list with 556 3s.
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LaVine turned it on in the third and finished up by hitting a key 3-pointer with 2:45 left to make it a 10-point lead. While LaVine has been in cold and hot stretches thus far, DeRozan has been a consistent scoring presence for his new team every night.
“He put us on his back pretty much and carried the fourth quarter out for us and got us a win, essentially,” Ball said. “We have 100% trust in him. We’re very comfortable with him when he has the ball. We know he’s going to make the right play and take us to the promised land.”
DeRozan did that, and he said the Bulls players understand the mistakes they made down the stretch. He knew it was on him to “slow it down” and find a way to get the job done.
It wasn’t exactly a gem, but for a team that’s still learning how to play with one another, it will suffice.
“We were fortunate we still won the game and got to learn on the fly,” Ball said, adding they would watch some tape “and figure out how to close games” in the immediate future.
“Because tonight was obviously not how we want to close things out moving forward,” he said.