LOS ANGELES: Zach LaVine inspired a fightback as the Chicago Bulls eliminated the Toronto Raptors from the NBA play-in tournament Wednesday, while rising Australian star Josh Giddey helped the Oklahoma City Thunder end the New Orleans Pelicans’ season. LaVine finished with 39 points – 30 of them scored after half-time — in a 109-105 road victory for the Bulls, who will now face Miami on Friday with the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs up for grabs. LaVine and former Toronto star DeMar DeRozan showed superb composure down the stretch as Chicago recovered from a 19-point third-quarter deficit to snatch a win that left Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena in stunned silence.
DeRozan finished with 23 points while Nikola Vucevic finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. Chicago coach Billy Donovan hailed LaVine’s role in the comeback as “extraordinary”. “He was phenomenal,” Donovan said. “What he did in that third quarter and going into the fourth quarter — it would have been very difficult for us to have won that game had he not done that. His performance was extraordinary. It gave us life, and it gave us hope…he had that mentality where he was going to do whatever he had to get us back in the game.” Toronto, who looked to be in complete control for long periods of the game, were left ruing a litany of missed free throws.
The Raptors shot only 18-of-36 from the foul line, a 50 percent success rate which was in stark contrast to the Bulls, who made 18 of their 22 free throws. “That’s a lot of misses,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said afterwards. “We left a lot of points on the floor there for sure. Okay, you’re not going to make them all. But if you miss more than 10 free throws in a game, it’s hard to win.” Pascal Siakam (32 points) and Fred VanVleet (26) were both outstanding for Toronto, with VanVleet electrifying the home crowd with a buzzer-beating three-pointer from near half-way as the second quarter ended.
That gave Toronto a 58-47 lead at half-time, and the Raptors kept up their scoring momentum early in the second half, extending their lead to 19 points as Chicago’s offense sputtered. But the pendulum swung back in the visitors’ favor once LaVine found his range, and as Chicago’s defensive fine-tuning stifled the Raptors, the Bulls began to steadily whittle away the deficit. A Pat Beverley three-pointer put Chicago ahead for the first time in the second half at 98-95 and Toronto were never able to get back in front thereafter.
Young guns stun Pelicans In Wednesday’s other game, Oklahoma City’s youthful line-up showed tremendous poise under pressure to grind out a 123-118 victory over the Pelicans in New Orleans. That result means the Thunder will face the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday with the chance to advance into the playoffs, while the Pelicans are now eliminated. The Melbourne-born Giddey — still only 20 – produced a stunning performance with 31 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the oldest member of the Thunder starting line-up at 24, also came up big with 32 points, while the 23-year-old Lu Dort finished with 27 points. It was another remarkable display by Oklahoma City, whose starting line-up had an average age of just over 21.
The game was also Giddey’s first experience of high-pressure postseason basketball. “It was pretty much everything I expected,” Giddey told ESPN afterwards. “A loud crowd, a hostile environment. As a kid you grow up wanting to be in these type of moments. I’m glad we came out of here with a win and we move on to the next one.” Gilgeous-Alexander said Oklahoma City’s young squad had developed poise under pressure after being “battle-tested” throughout the regular season. “We’ve played in a lot of close games and we’ve developed good habits — we know what gets it done down the stretch,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
Giddey was already looking ahead to Friday’s date in Minneapolis. “It’s going to be a similar environment — hostile, on the road, a do-or-die game,” Giddey said. “It’s going to be another test, but as Shai said — we’ve had a lot of close games and none of these moments rattle our guys. We’ll be ready for Minnesota.” – AFP