With Trent Jr. ejected at crucial moment, DeRozan’s cool composure downs Raptors

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DeMar DeRozan is no mystery to Toronto Raptors fans. They remember him putting up 27.3 points per game one season in 2016-17, the second-highest single-season mark in franchise history. They remember him averaging 5.2 assists a game on a 59-win team in 2017-18, the season before he was traded.

He was All-NBA both years.

But even for those who’ve been watching the Chicago Bulls wing for most or all of his 13 years, it’s hard to remember him looking better than he does right now, offensively anyway.

His defence remains a work in progress, but that’s part of his charm, no?

The Raptors got an up-close look at how DeRozan can run an offence when they cruised into the United Center looking for a win on the second night of a back-to-back, but returned to the plane on the wrong end of a 111-105 score.

And DeRozan got an up-close look at the Raptors seemingly being on the wrong end of a referee’s whistle, something he certainly felt he got stuck with as a Raptor over the years.

The Raptors were scratching and clawing to get a win after trailing for the first 45 minutes of the game. But it didn’t help when Gary Trent Jr. – not too bad of a mid-range scorer himself – got ejected after picking up his second technical for complaining about an uncalled foul following a tough bucket to pull Toronto within two with 2:03 to play.

Referee Tony Brothers told a pool reporter that Trent Jr. had been: “assessed his second unsportsmanlike technical foul for an overt gesture directed at the official.”

He picked up his first earlier in the fourth quarter when he got into a minor scrape with Bulls big man Nikola Vucevic.

Taken together, it was one of the softer ejections you’re ever going to see. Given Trent Jr. left the game with 32 points, matching his season-high set the night before, it was less than ideal for a Raptors team trying to steal a win on the road.

“It’s a huge play. For sure he got fouled,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “So a possible two-point swing there. It didn’t seem too bad, like a heat of the moment thing there.”

Toronto will be able to lick their wounds in the sun as they get to enjoy a pair of off days before they take on Kyle Lowry and the Miami Heat – provided the former Raptors star is back with his new team after being out due to personal reasons.

DeRozan finished with 29 points, seven rebounds and seven assists – one of them to wide-open Vucevic who hit the game-sealing three with 14 seconds to play.

Ending the game with a pass was fitting. In the early going DeRozan was weaving his way in and out of the Raptors’ paint before either finding his way to a comfortable 15-footer or helping find an open look for his teammates. In the fourth, as the Raptors began sending a second defender his way, he either found his way to the line or found a teammate.

It was vintage.

The Raptors struggled to contain DeRozan, and for long stretches had a hard time finding an answer for any of the Bulls’ other top two scorers – Zach Lavine and Nikola Vucevic, who finished with 23 and 17 points.

Combined the Bulls’ three key players shot 59 per cent.

The Raptors – without Fred VanVleet who missed his second game with a sore knee – shot 48 per cent and got 16 points, five rebounds and seven assists from Scottie Barnes, who returned after missing Tuesday’s game with a sore wrist, while OG Anunoby had 23 points and four assists.

But they did go only 17-of-28 from the line, which was as big a factor as anything else on the night.

Siakam struggled to score – he was 3-of-12 from the floor for 12 points, or about half his average for the past seven weeks – but added seven assists and made three steals. The Bulls were sending multiple defenders at him and from all corners of the floor, proof of the respect he’s gaining as he’s combined his scoring and playmaking at peak levels going back to the start of December.

Unlocking those riddles is still a work in progress but Siakam’s made loads of it of late.

DeRozan, his old teammate, provides a potential template.

“He’s always been one of my favourite players, just the way he plays the game,” said Siakam. “I love his mid-range game and his patience. And I think his passing you know, has been on another level just making reads and, and understanding the double team.

“So yeah, he’s definitely one of those guys that you watch. He’s been in the league for a while and I think one of the things that he does is getting to his spots, which is something I’m learning to do and he does it at a high, very high level. So if I can even get close to that, I think I’ll be in good shape.”

After starting the game on a 14-2 burst, the Bulls kept up their momentum and were leading comfortably by 17 at the half after closing the second quarter on a 27-11 run. At that point, the Bulls’ Big 3 had 45 points on 70 per cent shooting.

As has been the case regularly of the late, the Raptors didn’t settle in for what easily could have been a blow-out.

Their defence tightened up considerably in the third quarter – Chicago did shoot 55 per cent but the Raptors pressured them into six turnovers, and Toronto made excellent use of their extra possessions as Gary Trent Jr. popped off for 16 points in the period to set up the fourth with the Raptors trailing by a more manageable nine points.

Toronto’s defensive effort continued to ratchet up. A strip by Pascal Siakam as DeRozan set up for a late-clock jumper led to a Raptors runout and when Anunoby scored on the offensive rebound to bring Toronto within one, Chicago was shooting just 4-of-13 through the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter.

But losing Trent in the crucial moments didn’t help the cause, and DeRozan’s ability to calm the game and squeeze out advantages down the stretch meant everything to the Bulls.

In that sense, it was nothing the Raptors haven’t seen before.

Three-point Grange:

• The Twitter verse briefly caught fire on Wednesday afternoon when it was revealed Nurse would make his acting debut on the long-running CBC drama “Murdoch Mysteries”. In the publicity video, Nurse appears wearing a period outfit in fitting with the turn of the 20th century Toronto, when the series is set. Was Nurse playing James Naismith?

“I am not. I am a locker room attendant, I’m a locker room attendant in a basketball scene,” Nurse explained. “I shot that, geez, it’s been a while. You know how you shoot those things? It was a while back. Pretty fun. Pretty cool show. And awesome group of people to work with. We’ll see. Hopefully you can catch it and you’ll have to let me know what your critique is of it.”

Nurse has yet to encounter a stage or a camera that automatically sent him the other direction. His relationship Hamilton-based rockers The Arkells is well documented, he’s had commercials and he’s got hats monogrammed with his initials. Acting was inevitable.

“These people call me up and I say sure, yeah, let’s go check it out and try to be coachable when I get there. They can instruct me and try to have some fun with it. For me, it’s humbling and it’s fun and it’s an honour to be able to do some of that stuff when we can fit it in, yeah.”

• Dalano Banton has worked hard on his shooting and is reaping some of the benefits. In four starts with Raptors 905 this month the 6-foot-9 rookie guard is shooting 45.5 per cent from three on 5.5 attempts. He hit a pair of corner threes against Charlotte on Tuesday night and looked like he had been doing it his whole career, this from someone who shot 23.7 per cent from deep in two years of college.

“He’s doing a lot of work on it, first of all. Second of all, I think you probably noticed this, too, he’s just taking them. When it gets swung around to him or it gets kicked to him, there’s no hesitation. You can see that he’s ready. We always say get your feet and your hands ready. And he’s got all of them ready right now. He’s taking them confidently. It’s always a big plus when you do that.”

It helps to be lucky though. In the first quarter, Banton tried to hit OG Anunoby with a lob pass over the defence but ended up hitting a three instead. He managed to look like he meant it. Veteran move.

• Precious Achiuwa’s physical gifts are on par with the NBA’s elite, and he deserved credit for being willing to use them defensively – he leads the Raptors in rebounding percentage and is second only to Fred VanVleet in terms of defensive impact per possession. But his finishing ability is suspect (less than 50 per cent from inside three feet on shots other than dunks) and his offensive IQ still has miles to go. Twice the second quarter Achiuwa drove the ball into the heart of the Bulls zone even though there was an open three-point shooter in the corner waiting for one more pass. In each case Siakam could be seen pointing to the corner, trying to will Achiuwa to keep the ball moving. No luck and no buckets either.

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