Wins don't come easy in the NBA and no team understands that better than the Raptors (30-48).
Toronto led wire-to-wire en route to their 30th victory of the season, 101-98 over the Chicago Bulls (42-35) at the United Center Tuesday, but nearly coughed up a 16-point fourth quarter advantage to the short-handed home team.
Playing without a bevy of rotation players including Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, the Bulls ended the game on a 23-10 run fuelled by Nate Robinson, who scored 14 of his 22 points in the final frame.
DeMar DeRozan poured in a team-high 20, scoring Toronto's last and only four points in the final three minutes before Robinson missed a 41-foot heave that could have tied the game.
Rudy Gay scored 19, Amir Johnson recorded his team-leading 15th double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds while Kyle Lowry added 13 points and 10 assists for the Raptors, who reached the 30-win plateau for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
For Toronto, the night ended on a somber note as rookie centre Jonas Valanciunas sustained a neck injury after colliding with Gay on the final possession. Valanciunas, the reigning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, was attended to on the Raptors' bench after the game before being fitted for a neck brace and carried off the floor on a stretcher as a precaution.
Fast Breaking Points
- Wild Finish
The Raptors sure know how to make things interesting. They have now played 34 games in which they've led or trailed by three in the final three minutes, ranking them near the top of the league.
It looked as though the team's starters -- most of whom have logged major minutes this season -- would finally get an early night's rest on Tuesday. After getting off to a strong start, the Raptors maintained their lead and extended the advantage to as much as 16 with just over eight minutes left against an elite, yet watered down opponent.
Without Deng -- who burned the Raptors in the previous meeting, an overtime victory for Chicago in January -- Robinson played the role of closer, as he's been known to do for the Bulls this year.
The poise and composure of Tom Thibodeau's team, even undermanned, was evident while the Raptors were stuck with the "here we go again" look on their collective faces. Again, execution escaped Dwane Casey's club down the stretch. They committed costly turnovers, gave up crucial offensive rebounds (Chicago grabbed four in the quarter, 13 in the game) and somehow managed to find themselves in yet another bizarre late-game situation when an inconclusive replay forced a jump ball with nine seconds remaining.
Despite the dramatics, Toronto was able to pull out the rare closely-contested victory but likely would not have been so lucky against the healthy version (as healthy as it gets) of this veteran Bulls team.
The Stat: The Raptors have a record of 13-21 in games they've led or trailed by three in the final three minutes
- Quick Start
Toronto wasted no time bouncing back from an embarrassing effort in Saturday night's 100-83 loss to Milwaukee. Granted the playoff-bound Bulls were short handed -- missing their three best players -- but give the Raptors credit for taking advantage and playing with a sense of urgency off the top, something they haven't done much of against undermanned squads this season.
Led by DeRozan's 10 first-quarter points the Raptors came out of the gate with a renewed energy, having struggled with slow starts of late. Toronto shot 62 per cent and eclipsed the 30 points in the opening frame for the first time since Mar. 8 against the Lakers.
Kyle Lowry had one of his better quarters in months, pushing the tempo (seven Raptors fast-break points in the period) and breaking the defence down, which resulted in good looks from long distance (3-for-7 from three-point range).
The Stat: Toronto had lost its previous six first quarters before outscoring Chicago 31-22 in the opening frame on Tuesday.
- Bounce back for Rudy
Speaking of bounce backs, Gay was in desperate need of one after matching a season low with four points on a horrific 1-of-10 shooting in Saturday's loss.
With 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting he did just that in a solid, yet unspectacular performance against the Bulls. Still slowed by a lingering back ailment Gay looked limited at times, particularly on the defensive end where he struggled to contain Jimmy Butler, who went off for a career-high 28 points on 10-of-12 shooting.
Gay did look more fluid on the offensive end and knocked down three of his five tries from three-point land, an area of his game that has been better, albeit inconsistent over the past few weeks.
- Tightened Rotation
Although 10 Raptor players saw the court at one point or another (Landry Fields was subbed in for three seconds, Alan Anderson played six minutes in the fourth), Casey mainly stuck to an eight-man rotation in Chicago.
In addition to the five starters, Quincy Acy (eight points, six rebounds in 27 minutes) and Terrence Ross (13 points in 18 minutes) received significant playing time off the bench once again. Both rookies had positive outings as Acy played with his usual high level of energy while Ross, who had been struggling, made an impact and looked more confident than he has in months.
Casey also opted to use John Lucas III against his former team in lieu of Sebastian Telfair for the first time in six games.
Curiously, Johnson -- who has had his minutes reduced to rest a number of bumps and bruises he's collected over the season -- played 45 minutes in a game of little tangible significance.
The team is calling Valanciunas' ailment a whiplash-type injury. He was taken to a local hospital where he remained overnight for observation. ... Acy picked up a technical foul early in the fourth quarter after getting tangled up with a Bulls player. ... Lowry's double-double was his 10th of the season. Toronto had lost five straight meetings with the Bulls prior to Tuesday's victory. ... The Raptors reached the 30-win plateau for the first time since going 40-42 in 2009-10, Chris Bosh's last season in Toronto. ... Chicago was also without Taj Gibson (knee) but Richard Hamilton (back spasms) was able to make his return following a 19-game absence. ... Carlos Boozer had a double-double of 19 points and 11 rebounds, also adding eight assists.
The Raptors host these very same Chicago Bulls in the third and final meeting of the season at 7:00pm ET Friday evening, live on TSN2.