Joakim Noah returned to the lineup tonight for the Chicago Bulls, and was supposed to beef up their interior defense, but it was anything but that.
The Toronto Raptors shot an opponents season-high 58.1% from the field and got to the paint at will, attempting 34 free-throws.
Derrick Rose did all he could tonight to keep the Bulls in it, and tried to get them over the hump in the 4th quarter. He had 32 points and 10 assists, and simply took over in the 4th quarter, scoring 19 of his 32 points in the final frame.
Rose struggled to shoot the first two quarters, but finished 8-for-22 in the game, and got to the free-throw line at will, going 14-for-16.
It just wasn't enough tonight; the Bulls had two opportunities to tie or get within two points, but Rose missed a 20-footer with 40 seconds left, and then got blocked by Amir Johnson with 12 seconds left.
The headline coming into the game was Noah's return to the Bulls' lineup. He was very active early -- grabbing 10 rebounds in the first quarter -- but his energy, just like the Bulls' defense, faded as the game went on.
In nearly 24 and a half minutes, Noah had 5 points and 15 rebounds (8 offensive). However, Noah had just 3 rebounds in the second half, and was limited to just over 5 minutes in the critical 4th quarter.
Let's take a closer look at tonight's loss against the Raptors:
What led to the Bulls loss: The Bulls played their worst defensive game of the season, allowing the now 15-42 Raptors to score 118 points on 58% shooting.
The interior defense was an issue all night -- and as usual, Carlos Boozer, who scored 24 points, was a main problem with that. Similar to the game against the Utah Jazz two weeks ago, Boozer was getting hammered on the pick-and-roll and transition.
Amir Johnson killed him all night, scoring 17 points on a perfect 8-for-8 from the field. He had an array of moves, and two plays stood out most (both in the 4th quarter): an alley-oop dunk with Boozer sleeping in the paint, and giving Boozer a taste of his own medicine, on a spin-move layup.
Inexplicably, the Bulls also let Andrea Bargnani get to the paint off simple pump-fakes. He was too tall for Taj Gibson, too quick for Boozer and Thomas, and even took Noah to the rim a couple times.
Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan each scored 24 points, and went a combined 18-for-19 from the free-throw line. DeRozan has played much better since December, and has averaged over 18 points in January and February. The Bulls simply had no answer, and besides Ronnie Brewer, no one on the Bulls could stay in front of him.
Jose Calderon was the general that got the Raptors going all night, with 17 assists. When the Raptors seemed out of it in the first half, so did Calderon. But as soon as the Raptors started showing some life in the 3rd quarter, the Bulls were left on their heels, with Calderon coming right at them in the fastbreak.
As Tom Thibodeau put it after the game, defensively, the Bulls were a "disaster".
On most nights, the Bulls will be on the winning side when they score 111 points, especially considering that they're one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Tonight, the defense was soft and was exposed countless times.
What does it signify: Even with Noah back, the Bulls still have some strides to make defensive. Plus Noah, the Bulls should get a boost in what is already a top-ranking defense.
It will take some time for the Bulls to get adjusted with their star center, on both ends of the court, but it was clear that the Raptors came out with a lot more focus and urgency than the Bulls. They deserved to win tonight, but even with the Bulls playing their worst defensive performance of the season, they were right there until the end.
Key performance: Ronnie Brewer provided the Bulls with a big spark off the bench in the 2nd quarter, helping them extend the lead to 38-30 early in the quarter.
He had three steals at one point in a one minute segment in the 2nd and did a good job finishing at the rim.
The Bulls have been rumored to be interested in upgrading at the shooting guard position, but if they don't make a move, it's clear their best option is Brewer. He's the best overall two-guard they've got -- better offensively than Keith Bogans, and defensively than both Bogans and Kyle Korver.
Bogans being the starter isn't as disturbing as fans make it out to be -- he isn't playing starters minutes or when the game matters the most, in the 4th quarter. But the fact that Brewer has been around 20-25 minutes per game most of the season, even though he's their best option; that's the disturbing part.
Layups: This is a game the Bulls were certainly expected to win, but the 7-point loss is definitely a disappointment to get the second half started.
James Johnson also made his debut with the Raptors tonight, with 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks, and a nice alley-oop dunk. It was a very good debut considering the circumstances; he was at the Berto Center practicing with the rest of the Bulls just one day ago.
It will also be interesting to see if the Bulls make a move before the trade deadline tomorrow at 2pm C.S.T.
What's next: February 23rd: Miami HEAT (42-15) @ Bulls (38-17). 7pm C.S.T. TNT/ESPN 1000
The Bulls get right back to work Thursday night against a team that's 3 games ahead of them in the standings.
The HEAT defeated the Sacramento Kings 117-97 on Tuesday night in Miami, however, they have struggled against the top teams in the NBA.
Last time the two teams faced off, the Bulls won 99-96 at the United Center. However, both teams were missing a key player in the lineup: the HEAT missed LeBron James, while the Bulls, as we know, missed Noah.
The Bulls will be playing on the back-end of a back-to-back, but it will be in Chicago, where they are 25-4.