Raptors guard Juan Dixon's running 34-footer hung in the air as the third-quarter buzzer sounded, the Bulls watching helplessly as the three-pointer swished through for an unlikely but emphatic exclamation point.
That Dixon's shot came off yet another turnover, this one courtesy of Luol Deng, seemed fitting on a Sunday evening when the Bulls fumbled away a tailor-made opportunity to put a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed.
Armed for hours with knowledge of the Cavaliers' loss to the Pistons, the Bulls stumbled through a turnover- and foul-filled stinker against the Raptors. The performance left them merely with the tiebreaker advantage over Cleveland rather than a one-game lead with four to play.
The 103-89 blowout, which turned in the third quarter, marked the Raptors' franchise-record 28th home victory and first home win over the Bulls since Dec. 6, 2002. It also pushed their lead over the Heat for the No. 3 seed to two games.
In other words, the Bulls aren't the only team fighting for playoff positioning. And if the Bulls do claim the No. 2 seed and the Raptors hang on to No. 3, a second-round matchup is possible between these teams, which split the season series.
"It's a team we could see in the playoffs, so we wanted to set the tone," Toronto's Chris Bosh said.
Bosh posted his eighth straight double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds. But the All-Star forward didn't hurt the Bulls as much as Naperville native Anthony Parker, who sank six three-pointers en route to a career-high 27 points.
Dixon's 17 points off the bench and an active outing by Joey Graham, who had 19 points and nine rebounds, also reminded the Bulls that this team is dangerous even without the injured Andrea Bargnani, who will be back, and Jorge Garbajosa, who won't be.
The Bulls led 61-54 just over midway through the third when disaster struck. The Bulls committed five of their 18 turnovers in the final 4 minutes 17 seconds of the quarter and fouled with just as much frequency.
The Raptors scored more points from the free-throw line12than the Bulls did from the field in making just 5 of 18 shots in the quarter. Worse, the Raptors ripped off 11 of their 21 fast-break points to close the quarter with an 18-4 run, capped by Dixon's bomb.
"All night long any mistake we made they got out on the break and attacked the basket," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. "We really struggled to get back. It wasn't a high-energy performance for us."
By the time the Raptors opened the fourth with a 14-6 run, their lead had grown to 18 and the game had gotten out of hand.
"We didn't take care of the ball, guards especially," Gordon said. "That cost us. They were converting off our turnovers. We have to do a better job."
Gordon, who said his sore right wrist felt better, led the Bulls with 27 points.
The Bulls actually led 50-46 at halftime, taking advantage of Morris Peterson's ejection for a flagrant-two foul on Kirk Hinrich. But Skiles wasn't fooled.
"We were concerned right in the beginning," he said. We just didn't seem to have the same pop that we've had."
Ben Wallace certainly didn't. After missing two games with sinusitis, Wallace didn't determine he'd play against the Raptors until after testing himself during individual warmups.
He then played just 22:35 and finished with no points and five rebounds. Wallace sat for the final 16:13 and spent some of that time clutching his head while sitting on the bench.
Wallace said afterward doctors told him he might be battling headaches for two weeks because of the spinal tap he underwent to test for meningitis before Wednesday's game at Detroit.
"Ain't about to sit out for no two weeks," Wallace said.
That's when the playoffs start. By then, the Bulls hope to have this bumbling, stumbling performance long in their rearview mirror.
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