Raptors handle Bulls, cruise into All-Star break

Still shocked Denzel Valentine didn’t drop 50.

The rose is red,

The violet’s blue,

Raps lead the East,

And Bulls they slew.

—Sir Edmund Spenser, probably

On a night in which many were busy planting kisses of love upon their valentines, the Toronto Raptors were planting the kiss of death upon the Chicago Bulls. It was a game that saw Toronto win their seventh-straight and 41st of the season, with the team heading into the All-Star break as the first seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time ever.

Without a single Rising Star, I might add. But I digress.

The Raptors started off slowly, looking all the while like a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back. The offense was flowing fairly smoothly, with Serge Ibaka looking fresh (the rest gained during recent blowouts really appears to be helping him) and nimble as he repeatedly took defenders off the dribble, aggressively driving into the paint for swooping hooks. Jonas Valanciunas, too, started off hot, battling with Robin Lopez on the interior. But the issues came on the other end of the floor, as Toronto just looked tired defensively. Bulls were darting left and right, cutting inside from the perimeter for open shots and popping back out off of screens for wide open threes. By the end of the first, Chicago (who owns the league’s 28th-best offense) led 33–27 and were shooting 58.3 per cent from the field.

Thankfully, the second quarter literally led to a change of pace. The Rising Sta—I’m sorry, I mean Bench Mob (how do I keep confusing those two things?) took a minute or two to get rolling, but once they did they began to pick up the energy and intensity on the defensive end, allowing for fast break opportunities and a game-speed that they were comfortable with.

“We started moving the ball, we started to defend,” said Dwane Casey post-game of the second quarter. “I think they [the Bulls] were shooting something like 54 per cent in the first quarter, and then we got defense in the game and that was the difference. Once we started playing defense and putting forth the effort and a focus defensively, then the offense kicked in. It’s funny how that works.”

Pascal Siakam in particular was a standout, as he was forced to create more than usual due to the Bulls putting immense pressure on the point guards, especially in the pick and roll. With all of the trapping going on, the ball wound up in Siakam’s hands often in the half-court, and Chicago would then proceed to dare him to make a play. Unfortunately for the Bulls, Siakam’s come a long way with his ball handling skills, and he continuously drove into the paint to either score or make an excellent pass, often kickstarting a sequence that would see the ball whip around until it found an open look.

“I love the way he’s playing right now,” Casey said of Siakam. “He’s a point forward. We want him to take the ball down on the break because he can make plays and make decisions.”

Siakam had 12 points by halftime and, with the aid of the rest of the second unit, helped push the Raptors’ lead to 61–49. By this point, Toronto had already scored 36 of their points in the paint and racked up 20 assists on 26 made shots, a trend that would continue for the remainder of the game. They’d also held Chicago to a mere 16 total points in the second, dropping their field goal percentage to a much more manageable 43.2.

The third quarter saw more of the same, highlighted by a few spectacular plays by Kyle Lowry, who at one point made an extremely difficult and-one shot in front of the Bulls bench, his body contorted as he tossed the ball up to the rim, watched it bounce up high, and then down and through the basket. As Lowry is wont to do, he immediately turned to talk some trash to his opponents before heading to the free throw line. He wound up nearly completing a triple-double, finishing the game with 20 points, seven boards, and 10 assists.

His All-Star teammate, DeMar DeRozan, had a bit of a tougher time getting his shot to fall. But he didn’t allow that to deter him at all, and instead focused on his improved playmaking skills, dishing out eight dimes of his own. The Raptors are now 12–2 when DeRozan records at least seven assists this season. He ended the contest with just seven points, but didn’t seem bothered post-game, and talked about how important it is to keep looking for his teammates.

“It’s easy for me,” he said. “Passing and understanding the attention that I draw, and no matter if it’s an on night or an off night I understand rotations, the next pass—I kinda see plays two steps ahead. That’s just me with my experience and the knowledge that I see how the defense plays us, and I just try to exploit that and if my teammates can carry us home that’s all that matters.”

The final quarter began with Toronto up 95–76 and rightfully saw the bench unit play the entire 12 minutes, allowing for the starters to get some extra rest ahead of the break. The Raptors sustained the lead with ease, and we even got some Lucas Nogueira and Alfonzo McKinnie action, with the former finishing a nice alley-oop courtesy of Siakam and the latter draining a pretty three-pointer.

In the end, the Raptors won handily, 122–98.

The best and most interesting part of this game was the fact that Toronto finished with 38 assists on the night, one shy of the franchise-high. This was the eighth time this season they’ve recorded at least 30 dimes, which is sixth-most in the league. Even more wild: Over the last five years combined, the Raptors have had games with at least 30 assists only eight times total.

What a way to go into All-Star weekend—Toronto is playing its best basketball to this point that it ever has. The club has never gone into the break with 41 wins before. But DeRozan, for one, isn’t satisfied.

“We’re heading in the right direction,” said the All-Star guard. “But at the same time we still understand how much we need to clean up on the defensive end and the offensive end, so as long as we keep that mindset every time we step out there, whether it’s practice or a game, we understand we’re trying to get better and it carries over.”

The Raptors will look to extend their winning streak to eight games on February 23rd, when they play the Milwaukee Bucks at home.

Enjoy All-Star weekend, everyone!

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