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VanVleet’s one-man performance not enough for Raptors as they fail to sweep Bulls

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The Raptors were playing their third set of consecutive games just three weeks into the NBA season and were looking for their first sweep after splitting two games on the road against Miami and at home against Philadelphia.

Whether it’s between games adjustments or just – as Raptors head coach Nick Nurse put it before the Raptors came out flat in their second game against a short-handed Sixers team after thumping their full squad in the first meeting –  human nature that the losing team tries a little harder in the re-match, honestly, who knows.

Toronto has five more of the two-game sets – the second-most in the league, so they might want to try and figure something out. Regardless, the Raptors were hoping to avoid reverting to form against Chicago and win two games in a row for the third time this season.

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Unfortunately, for the third time in three instances the team that lost the first game of the two turned around and won the second as the Bulls did with a 111-97 win – one that was never really in doubt. Toronto got off to a fast early start but the Bulls surged back and won the first, second and third quarters and maintained a double-digit lead for the entire fourth.

The Raptors shot 42.4 per cent from the floor and 9-of-28 from deep, and while they forced the Bulls into 21 turnovers, Toronto lost the offensive rebound battle 9-5 after hauling in 23 of them on Monday. The Bulls shot 52 per cent from the floor and were also 9-of-28 from the floor.

All in all, a disappointing effort from the Raptors who had no handy excuses other than Pascal Siakam being out for the second game with a groin strain. Both teams were playing on short rest, both teams flew the night before and both teams have played a load of games so far this season. The Bulls played tired better, apparently.

The Raptors fell to 6-5, the Bulls improved to 6-6.

Some takeaways

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How would VanVleet look on night two? Pretty good…

VanVleet had his best game of the season and counted at least 30 points and 10-plus assists for the just the second time in his career against Chicago on Sunday, but he played 39 minutes and you had to wonder if he would be fit to go given he missed the previous three games due to back tightness brought on by – one could wonder – his heavy minutes load to start the season.

But there was no concern after his Sunday night explosion and VanVleet looked none-the-worse for wear on Monday. With his close ties in his hometown of Rockford – about 90 minutes west of the Windy City – VanVleet has always valued games at the United Center.

VanVleet got the Raptors rolling with an early assist on a Christian Kololo lay-up, converted a fastbreak off an O.G. Anunoby steal and then banged down a trio of early threes.

The Raptors are deep and have their share of ball-handlers, so VanVleet’s usage rate has been down this season – 17.7 per cent compared to 23.7 and 23.9 the last two years as he was making the transition from supporting actor to all-star. But VanVleet has clearly been making room for others this year. With Pascal Siakam (groin) out VanVleet’s 26.3 per cent usage rate Sunday was the highest of the season. His highest prior to that – 25.2 – came in a win against the Miami Heat when Scottie Barnes was injured.

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But the Bulls weren’t having it. After watching VanVleet torch them on Sunday and come out smoking in the first quarter Monday, they made a point of turning off his water as rangy, athletic second-year guard Ayo Dosunmu made a point of picking up VanVleet for the length of the court, forcing him to work for every inch of floor, and often seeing a second defender when he did get to the half court. VanVleet was scoreless in the second quarter but shook loose for 16 of his game-high 27 in the second half, but he couldn’t drag Toronto back into the game.

Unfortunately, no one else looked very good at all…

Paging: Scottie Barnes? Gary Trent Jr.? Precious Achiuwa? Anyone? Keep this game in mind people get carried away with the notion that there is a list of players on this team ready to eat up shots, minutes and spotlight currently occupied by VanVleet or Siakam.

With a star player out and more shots and touches available to go around a lineup filled with players either looking to grow their offensive profile of just get a chance to show they deserve any kind of opportunity at all, the Raptors visit to Chicago proved to be a huge dud. VanVleet played well, but after that? No-shows.

We’ll give Anunoby some slack because he at least held up his end of the bargain defensively as he filled a big part of the game plan to make Toronto get beat by ’anyone but DeRozan’ as he helped hold DeRozan to 18 points on a total of 15 shots over the two games (9 on six shots Monday night).

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Anunoby continued as a one-man turnover machine, adding three more steals to his league-leading total. But after that? Barnes didn’t score his first field goal until his ferocious dunk late in the second quarter. He was 1-for-7 then and finished with five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Trent Jr. (19 points) played to his average, nothing more… Achiuwa was not a factor and Boucher was a non-factor off the bench as the Bulls reserves out-scored Toronto 32-18 heading into the third quarter.

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The Zach LaVine effect

When the Raptors sent a steady stream of doubles at DeRozan Sunday night, they could do it with some confidence in part because LaVine, Chicago’s second-leading scorer, was back home resting his surgically repaired knee. But Monday night was a different story. DeRozan didn’t have to force anything to generate offence – he only had two turnovers, compared to five the other night – and simply got off the ball when a second defender started heading his way. More often than not the ball would find it’s way to LaVine’s hands and – as usual – he didn’t miss much as the LaVine put up 30 points and five assists on 11-of-20 shooting.

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Christian Koloko has been an impressive rookie… but he’s still a rookie:

It’s unfair to expect an even performance night in and night out from a player not even a month into his career – and following up a career outing is never easy. But Koloko certainly struggled as a starter on the second night of a back-to-back.

He was a step slow in the first half – he was 1-of-4 with three fouls, a turnover and no blocks coming off his 11 points, seven rebounds and six blocks in 31 minutes on Sunday. It didn’t get much better after that as he air-balled from three feet on his first touch of the second half and then was called for a moving screen a moment later.

Midway through the fourth quarter as the Raptors were finally showing signs of making a run, Koloko failed to finish a lob from VanVleet and couldn’t make the rebound count either. It’s all part of the process for the 33rd overall pick. It’s nights like that it would be nice for Nurse to be able to turn to a healthy Khem Birch as an option, but Birch remains out with a troublesome left knee – it was his right knee that required off-season knee surgery – and so Koloko has to keep learning on the job.

Don’t count your chickens but…

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The bright side? The Raptors have had a challenging schedule to start the season – their visit to San Antonio their only outing against a team that either wasn’t in the playoffs last season or was projected to be in there this year – and hey, the rebuilding Spurs are .500, though the Raptors caught San Antonio short a pair of starters in what ended up a blowout win for Toronto.

All of that to say the schedule has finally turned a little bit. The Raptors come home to host the Houston Rockets (2-9 after a win over Orlando Monday) before hitting the road for starts against Oklahoma City, Indiana, and Detroit.

Each are young teams with some scintillating talent, but none are projected to be competing for a playoff spot, quite the opposite as all four clubs are considered to be more likely to be positioning for one of the top spots in the draft lottery and a shot at either Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson, the likely top two picks in a draft class top heavy with talent.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and consistency hasn’t exactly been the trademark of the Raptors early season, but if they’re looking for some runway to get on a roll they’re about to get one. ­

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