Inconsistency plagued the Toronto Raptors all season and it undid them again with their post-season hopes on the line.
Zach LaVine took over in the second half as the Chicago Bulls rallied past Toronto 109-105 on Wednesday to win their single elimination play-in game. LaVine scored 30 of his 39 points after intermission as Chicago stormed back from an 18-point deficit.
The Raptors only made 50 per cent of their 36 free-throw attempts, including two critical misses by Pascal Siakam that could have tied the game with 12 seconds left on the clock.
“We didn’t have our best fourth quarter in terms of playing the way that we should play and we couldn’t get stops, they kept scoring,” said Siakam, who finished with 32 points and nine rebounds.
“Missed some free throws, especially those two at the end, super important but I just missed them.”
Fred VanVleet had a double-double with 26 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists for Toronto, including seven three-pointers. He said it would take at least two weeks for him to process the loss.
“Any way you slice it, a loss in the play-in is going to be frustrating,” he said. “Whether you win or you lose, especially if you lose, you find whatever reason it was that you lost and try to make sense of it.”
The Raptors hosted the game after finishing the regular season with a 41-41 record, good for ninth in the east. That put them just ahead of the 40-42 Bulls in the standings.
“We’ve definitely shown some good stretches but also some stretches where we weren’t good at all,” said Siakam. “I think that we’re going to have to be better, when you look at the season, a lot of ups and downs.”
Former Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan scored 23 and had seven rebounds for the Bulls. Centre Nikola Vucevic had a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
DeRozan visited the Raptors locker-room after the game and had a lengthy conversation with VanVleet.
“That’s just my brother, man,” said VanVleet, adding that he and DeRozan had not spoken in weeks, anticipating that they would face each other in the play-in.
“It’s good to see him, but I’m not very happy with him right now.”
Chicago will face the Heat in Miami on Friday in the second round of the play-in tournament. The winner of that game will be the eighth seed in the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs, playing the No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
VanVleet sank a buzzer-beating three-pointer before intermission, bringing the 19,800 fans at Scotiabank Arena to their feet and giving the Raptors a 58-47 lead. The Raptors didn’t let up to start the third, going on a 10-3 run to open up an 18-point lead.
But LaVine came alive in the final three minutes of the third, scoring 11 points — including eight in a row — cutting Toronto’s lead to 81-72.
“LaVine got super cooking there in the third,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “They were really spreading the floor on us and getting by our first line of defence and getting it deep towards the rim a lot.”
An 8-0 Bulls run, with LaVine responsible for six of those points, cut Toronto’s advantage to three early in the fourth.
Alex Caruso quieted the sold-out crowd with a three-pointer to tie it 91-91 with 6:26 left on the clock. Scottie Barnes came right back with a layup for Toronto, forcing Chicago to call a timeout. On the ensuing possession, Caruso stole the ball for an uncontested layup.
Patrick Beverly sank a three-pointer on the next Bulls possession for their first lead of the game. Siakam’s dunk gave the fans life but LaVine replied with a jumper to maintain a three-point lead before Barnes and DeRozan exchanged field goals.
VanVleet missed a deep three-pointer but the rebound came out to Toronto guard Gary Trent Jr., who passed it back to VanVleet for another chance to tie the game. VanVleet didn’t miss on his second opportunity, tying it 100-100 with 3:10 left to play.
LaVine answered with a two-pointer and then DeRozan grabbed a defensive rebound and scored at the other end to give the Bulls a four-point lead with less than two minutes to go.
Barnes made a free throw on the next Raptors possession. Siakam was fouled by Beverley with 50 seconds left on the clock, making one of his two shots at the charity stripe to cut Chicago’s lead to two.
DeRozan then hit a free throw with 28.7 seconds remaining, forcing a Toronto timeout. On the ensuing possession, Siakam drove to the net for a two-handed dunk and a one-point Raptors deficit.
LaVine was fouled after Caruso inbounded the ball to him, sending him to the free-throw line. LaVine hit both shots, giving the Raptors 17.9 seconds to tie the game.
Feeding the ball to Siakam on the inbound pass, Caruso immediately fouled the Toronto all-star forward for three free throws.
Siakam sank his first one, but clanked it with his second and the ball rolled off the rim with his third, keeping Chicago ahead by two.
Vucevic was fouled on his rebound of Siakam’s final free throw and he made both of his free throws for the game’s final scores.