For DeMar DeRozan, it was a homecoming. For the Raptors, it was a haunting.
DeRozan, the long-time Raptors standout, was the hero Monday night for a Bulls team that seemed to be doing everything it could to blow a 20-point third-quarter lead, only to hold on for a 111-108 victory.
The Bulls moved to 4-0 to start a season for the first time since 1996 — but not without some head-shaking moments and nail-biting.
“Part of the reason they wanted me to come here it was my experience, being in those moments, understanding how to deal with those moments,” DeRozan said. “It’s a learning experience, me just teaching other guys.”
There were plenty of teaching moments, especially late, when that 20-point lead had been trimmed to seven points with 5:42 left. After Lonzo Ball missed a shot, Raptors forward OG Anunoby hit a three-pointer from 32 feet, cutting the lead to four.
DeRozan came in after a rest, joining Zach LaVine, Ball, Troy Brown Jr. and Nikola Vucevic. No worries, right? But it didn’t work out that way. After a turnover by Ball, Anunoby laid it in to make it a two-point game.
That’s when four-time All-Star DeRozan, who had 18 points at the time, came to the rescue, hitting a 17-footer to extend the lead. Alex Caruso then nailed two free throws to push it back up to six. After a miss by the Raptors’ Gary Trent Jr., DeRozan scored again, putting Anunoby in a spin cycle as he hit a difficult 12-foot fadeaway.
And he wasn’t done. After the Raptors cut it to four again, DeRozan nailed another clutch mid-range jumper. Fred VanVleet cut it to four again with 1:16 left, and then Vucevic had a bad turnover. But Caruso made a huge steal, leading to DeRozan hitting two clutch free throws for a six-point lead.
VanVleet made another layup. Then, after an inexplicably bad turnover by Ball on the inbound pass, Scottie Barnes slammed it home with 14.4 seconds to trim the Bulls’ lead back to two.
Vucevic, who was battling an illness all day and had been questionable to play, split two free throws, but VanVleet missed a three-point attempt at the horn, allowing the Bulls to escape.
“We didn’t do our job late,” LaVine said. “A win is a win, but we have to work better at closing out a game, because it shouldn’t have ended as a one-possession game.’’
As for DeRozan? His 11 points in the fourth quarter were just the type of contribution he was brought to the Bulls to make.
“We’re happy to have him,” Ball said. “He’s been our go-to in close games and hasn’t disappointed us yet. We know he’s going to make the right play and take us to the promised land.”
Said DeRozan: “Just did my job. Just using my experience, understanding those moments, understanding what needs to be done. We got kind of stagnant, couldn’t score, [the Raptors] went on a run, so it’s my job, especially late-game, closing out the game. Just getting to my spots and trying to make big shots. Something I’m not shy of.”