It took losses by Boston and Charlotte for Toronto to secure its post-season spot — a fitting turn of events for a Raptors team mired in a miserable slump.
"There are no moral victories in this league, it's win or lose, make or miss league," said coach Dwane Casey.
Greivis Vasquez had six three-pointer in a 22-point performance, but it wasn't enough as the Raptors fell apart over the final eight minutes en route to a 116-103 loss.
"We played hard, came out with a lot of intensity, aggressive," said DeMar DeRozan, who had 20 points on the night. "That's one thing we definitely can take from it, we had the game in our hands for most part of the game and we've got to understand six, seven more minutes of that, we win the game."
Jimmy Butler topped the Bulls (44-29) with 23 points, while Aaron Brooks added 16.
Lou Williams added 18 points for the Raptors (42-3), who were playing without injured all-star Kyle Lowry (sore back). Terrence Ross finished with 16, and Jonas Valanciunas grabbed 12 rebounds.
The Raptors have lost three of their last four, and 12 of their last 17 — not the way they want to head into the post-season. But DeRozan said the "smallest thing" can turn things around.
"We only need one game when we put everything together and it brings our confidence level back to where it was," DeRozan said. "It's going to be one of these games for sure, and we understand. . . our confidence is still definitely high, through the bad two weeks we had, we still clinched playoffs tonight.
"Still in a great spot. All we need is that one game to get ourselves going, going into the playoffs."
On a night that Lowry sat on the bench alongside the coaches dressed in a charcoal suit, a special cushion propping up his sore back, Vasquez filled in admirably, drilling his sixth three-pointer about two minutes into the fourth quarter that put the Raptors up by five points.
Vasquez would shoot 6-for-11 from three-point range.
But the Bulls, who'd beaten Toronto three times already this season, fought back with a 18-5 run, capped by a two free throws by Butler with 3:42 to play that put Chicago up by 104-97. Nikola Mirotic drilled a three and Butler added a basket to put the visitors up by eight with two minutes to play.
A three by Brooks with 1:32 on the clock all but sealed Toronto's fate as fans started to head for the exits.
"Well, they scored 39 points," Casey said, when asked about Toronto's fourth-quarter collapse. "We competed for three quarters. If a team shoots 61 per cent, 51 per cent from the three, and score 116 points, there isn't a lot of defence being played. They're not chopped liver either, they're going to be one of the top teams in our conference, and that's our measuring stick."
As it turned out, the Raptors didn't measure up.
Ross led the way with 12 points in the first quarter, launching a 24-footer that gave the Raptors a 13-point lead. Toronto took a 29-20 advantage into the second.
The Bulls began the second with an 8-2 run to pull within three points. The Raptors took a 54-50 lead into the locker-room at halftime.
The Raptors assembled an 11-point lead in the third, punctuated by a Ross turnaround hook shot. But the Bulls battled back to cut Toronto's lead to 82-77 with one quarter left.
The Raptors have 10 games left of the regular season. They host the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday followed by the Houston Rockets on Monday.