9 observations: Bulls beat Raptors in Patrick Williams’ return

Must-wins might not exist in NBA regular seasons. But Monday’s matchup with the Raptors represented something close for the Chicago Bulls as the stretch run accelerates.

The result? A 113-99 win in which the hosts out-paced Toronto 59-44 in the second half. Just what the doctor ordered on the heels of a three-game losing streak.

Here are nine observations:

1. Patrick Williams received a loud ovation upon checking in for his first game action since Oct. 28 at the five-minute mark of the first quarter… Then, 16 seconds later, crowded Pascal Siakam on a drive to give the Raptors forward two free-throw attempts.

The good news is that first sequence was the nadir of Williams’ first game back from wrist rehab. He finished with seven points, two rebounds and a steal — submitting a corner 3, strong layup driving a closeout on the baseline, and steal-and-score as his offensive contributions while spending time on Siakam defensively. He picked his spots deftly and looked comfortable at both ends.

In a nod to his excitement to be back, Williams also cracked a rare in-game smile after spinning home the aforementioned fastbreak lay-in, which he said was directed at Scottie Barnes on the Raptors’ bench. The two Florida State alums shared some friendly trash talk throughout.

After the game, Billy Donovan echoed what was obvious to those watching: Williams moved well and looked “very good,” overall, in his 19 minutes — which fell six short of his 25-minute cap. Williams said he expects to play against Milwaukee on Tuesday.

2. Donovan tweaked his first unit for this one, inserting Alex Caruso at the starting point guard spot in place of Ayo Dosunmu. Caruso finished with six assists — the Bulls had 28 dimes against just six turnovers, as a team — and buried two 3-pointers while checking Fred VanVleet most of the evening.

For the impact he had on the Bulls’ defensive disruptiveness, Donovan called the decision to start Caruso a “long-term” one. To hear the Bulls’ coach tell it, he was just waiting for Caruso to get his legs under him after missing seven weeks with a fractured wrist.

3. The Bulls trailed 55-54 at the half, in some part due to anomalous free-throw shooting (6-for-12). But the game flipped in a third quarter they closed on a 21-8 run — at one point scoring 15 unanswered — to flip a two-point deficit into a double-digit lead entering the final stanza.

That 21-8 run, which took place in a roughly six-minute span, featured a little bit of everything. Zach LaVine used some strong drives and snappy setbacks to score 14 points in that span. Caruso hit a 3 and slung a drive-and-kick assist to a Nikola Vučević floater. Williams had the pick-six. In all, the Raptors coughed up four turnovers, and the Bulls flowed seamlessly into a series of devastating fastbreaks off of them.

It was as impressive a stretch of basketball as this team has put together in weeks. Maybe months.

4. In that vein, the Bulls rediscovered the disruptive identity that defined their early-season defensive success by scoring 29 points off 14 Toronto turnovers, and 16 on the fastbreak. The first figure (29 points off turnovers) matches their second-highest total of the season.

“From start to finish we played to an identity,” Donovan said. “The ball movement was good… And I thought we tried to help each other defensively, and we were active, and we were able to get out in transition. And that’s what we gotta do.”

5. LaVine scored just eight points on 2-for-6 shooting (3-for-6 on free throws) in the first half, but ignited in that paradigm-shifting third quarter. He scored or assisted on nine straight Bulls points to catalyze the eventual 21-8 run en route to 16 points in the period, making six of eight field goals and two of three 3s.

“That’s Zach being Zach,” Williams said. “Before DeMar (DeRozan) was here, Zach did that every game. So it’s nothing new to me to see, it’s good to see him get back in his rhythm, get back in his flow.”

6. This was a good lead-by-example game by DeMar DeRozan as well. By now you’re familiar with the brand of highly-efficient scoring night he put together — 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting, 10-for-10 from inside the 3-point arc. But this was also one of DeRozan’s most engaged defensive performances of the season. In it, he blocked three shots, nabbed a steal and drew his first charge of the campaign on a Chris Boucher transition drive.

7. Troy Brown Jr. exited the regular rotation when Caruso returned four games ago. With Williams back, it was Derrick Jones Jr.’s turn to log a DNP.

The Bulls certainly appreciated the contributions of Brown and Jones as the team navigated an injury-plagued stretch, but this is a better group when whole enough to not require their services on a night-to-night basis. The Bulls’ 29 bench points in this one wasn’t a lofty total by any means, but it did out-pace their season-long, 29th-ranked average of 26.5. And it came on an off-night from Coby White (two points, 1-for-5 shooting).

8. Dosunmu, transitioning back to a reserve role with Caruso starting, led the charge in that department with 11 points, six assists and a 5-for-9 shooting line in 24 minutes. Donovan was emphatic that the move to the bench was in no way a reflection of the rookie’s play.

“He has been incredible,” Donovan said of Dosunmu. “But I’ve also asked a lot of him in a lot of ways, and he’s handled everything in terms of trying to run the team… I just felt like, since Alex had his legs under him a little bit, starting off with that group defensively could give us a little bit better energy.”

9. This was a big win for the Bulls — regardless of the fact that the Raptors were playing the second night of a road-road back-to-back, and suited up without Gary Trent Jr. and OG Anunoby.

With the result, the Bulls hold at fifth in the Eastern Conference, but gained a game on the Cavaliers, who lost to the Lakers on Monday, and, of course, Toronto. The Bulls now led Cleveland by 1.5 games, and the Raptors by 2.5 — and they’ve officially clinched the latter season series.

Next up: At the Bucks for the second night of a back-to-back on Tuesday.

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