The scheduling gods have not been kind to the Toronto Raptors, which is why last night's game against the Chicago Bulls took on added importance for the struggling NBA team.
The Raptors were at home last night for a single game after playing three in four nights in the southern United States, and now they're headed back on the road for another four, beginning tomorrow night on the West Coast against the Los Angeles Clippers.
"It's a little bit like a road game for us," Toronto coach Jay Triano said of the one-game Toronto pit stop last night.
Last night against a Bulls outfit that was playing the second of back-to-back contests, the Raptors had their best opportunity to walk off with a victory.
Although the Raptors (4-4) eventually emerged with a 99-89 victory over the Bulls (4-4) to snap a two-game slide, Toronto did it the hard way - spotting a low-scoring Chicago team 60 points in the first half before deeming it time to play a little defence.
"We were embarrassed at half time," said Triano, who was none too impressed by the Raptors' lackadaisical effort in the first half, in which the Bulls were good on 52.1 per cent of their shots. "They had 60 points against us. And I credit those guys because they pulled together and found a way to hold a team to 29 points in the second half."
It marked the first time this season the Raptors have not scored 100 points.
An indifference to defence, such as the Raptors displayed in the first half, was the primary reason Toronto came into the game in the throes of a two-game skid, beginning last Monday with a disheartening 131-124 loss to the Spurs in San Antonio.
The Raptors surrendered 32 second-chance points to the Spurs, a damming indictment of a soft Toronto interior defence that has been unable to consistently track down loose balls.
Heading into last night's game, the Raptors were ranked 30th out of 30 NBA teams, surrendering an average of 17.8 second-chance points a game.
Last night, the Raptors kept the second-chance points down to 14.
"Guys have to go get it," Triano said. "You have to have the hunger to chase it down."
Reggie Evans, one of Toronto's many off-season acquisitions, is one of the players that Triano said will bring an appetite for defensive rebounding.
Unfortunately for Toronto, the 6-foot-8, 245-pound former Philadelphia 76ers bruiser injured a foot during the exhibition schedule and has yet to make an appearance in the regular season.
After trailing 60-53 at the half, the Raptors fell behind by as many as 11 points in the third quarter before snapping out of their defensive lethargy.
A stylish dunk late in the third quarter by Toronto rookie DeMar DeRozan, who finished the game with career highs in both points (nine) and rebounds (nine), seemed to provide the Raptors with a bit of a push as they trailed 78-77 heading into the fourth.
"I thought DeMar was great," Triano said. "DeMar in the third quarter just really gave us a life. He chased balls, he rebounded, he was aggressive. I thought he had maybe one of his best games as a pro."
DeRozen, Toronto's first-round draft pick who is all of 20, said the dunk "made me feel young again."
DeRozen explained himself, saying that teammate Chris Bosh has been riding him of late for failing to regularly display his explosive jumping prowess.
In the fourth quarter, point guard Jose Calderon drew a roar from the crowd of 16,310 when he turned a corner and scored on a layup that provided Toronto with an 89-88 lead with about 51/2-minutes left to play.
The Bulls did their part after that, missing on 13 consecutive shots to finish the game, scoring just a single point over the final 6 minutes 24 seconds of the game.
A steal on the defensive end by Andrea Bargnani then loomed large as Chicago's Joakim Noah tugged at his jersey as he was heading uncontested up court, and Noah was assessed a clear path foul.
That meant two free throws, plus possession of the ball, for the Raptors.
Bargnani did his part, sinking both his freebies, while Calderon knocked down a 22-foot pull-up jumper that increased Toronto's lead to 93-88 and the Raptors never looked back.
Bosh played with his usual authority, finishing with 28 points and 11 rebounds, his sixth double-double in eight games. Calderon finished with 18 points and six assists.
NOTES If anything this season, the Toronto Raptors have shown they can score with the best of them. They have opened the 2009-10 season by tying a franchise best with seven consecutive games of scoring at least 100 points. The last time Toronto accomplished that was in March of 2007. … Oh, baby, Chuck Swirsky was back in town last night as part of the Chicago Bulls' radio broadcast team, and the former voice of the Raptors was recognized during the game as part of Toronto's 15th anniversary celebration. … Eight of Chicago's 25 first-quarter points were provided by rookie forward Taj Gibson, who went 4-for-6 from the floor.
NEXT Friday, at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. EST.