Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Bulls, Jan. 7

The 24-11 Raptors visit the 18-18 Chicago Bulls

TORONTO, ON- MARCH 14: Toronto's DeMar DeRozan drives to the net on Chicago's Jimmy Butler in the first half.. The Toronto Raptors hosted the Chicago Bulls Monday night at the Air Canada Centre. Lucas Oleniuk-Toronto Star Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star

Ah, the Chicago Bulls – a team that has swept the Raptors in two consecutive regular seasons, including last year when they didn’t even make the playoffs. Albeit in a different look (most crucially no Gasol – somewhere Valanciunas is smiling while eating a bowl of borscht), those Bulls are hosting Wolverine and his crew of R(ed)-Men Saturday night in Chicago. The Bulls have had an uneven year thus far, but are coming into this one with two straight wins over Charlotte and impressively, Cleveland. The Raptors are coming in after bouncing back from the drubbing in San Antonio having completed a season sweep against Utah on Thursday.

One of the biggest storylines over the last week in the NBA prior to the Kyle Korver trade to Cleveland was the sharp reduction in Rajon Rondo’s role and minutes. Despite a decent season in Sacramento, Rondo’s signing with Chicago raised a few eyebrows around the league, specifically about his fit as a non-shooting point guard alongside two slashing wings. The Bulls opened the season with three straight wins to quell the fears about the starting lineup’s chemistry, but the honeymoon didn’t last long, as they went 13-18 since until the last two wins. Their latest resurgence coincided with 3 straight DNP’s from the former Celtic.

The main beneficiary from the change is Michael Carter-Williams, who has returned from injury and found his way into the starting lineup of late. While not an offensive game-changer, Carter-Williams’ length and defensive prowess earned the trust of embattled head coach Fred Hoiberg, as he has played 25 or more minutes in each of the last four games (he only made his first appearance of the season December 28).

By most statistical metrics, the Raptors are facing a middling team, with a couple of exceptions. Chicago’s greatest strength is offensive rebounding – they lead the league in that category. Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors remain dead last in the NBA in defensive rebounding, heralding the upcoming matchup as a possible nightmare. It appears as though Dwane Casey and his coaching staff prepared for this contest however, as they tried out a Bebe and JV frontcourt against the Jazz, in response to Siakam “possibly hitting the rookie wall.” It worked out decently, as the Raptors hung in with a decent rebounding squad, only losing 46-45 on the glass. Nogueira and Valanciunas combined for an impressive 13 offensive boards against Utah, and though it’s a bit uncomfortable to look at, that lineup proved it can work against a team that uses two traditional bigs.

To help prepare us for this Eastern conference battle, I reached out to Vijay Vemu of SB Nation’s Blog a Bull, who graciously shared his thoughts.

Alex Gres: Chicago currently holds a record of 3-1 against the league’s elite (games vs. Spurs and Cavaliers, did not play Warriors), while treading water at 15-17 against the rest of the Association. Are those wins a harbinger of what this Bulls team could become, or occasional anomalies? What gives?

Vijay Vemu: Chicago is a very strange team. Outside of Jimmy Butler showing up every night, it’s basically a coin flip if everyone else shows up. They seem to play more inspired against better teams but the Christmas Day game should show you how undermanned Chicago is on both ends of the court. A lot of their wins have to do with some strange trends in the games. Like in their most recent game against the Cavaliers, the Bulls knocked down 13 shots from 3-point range. For a team that is dead last in the 3-point percentage and 3-point attempts, it was very strange to see Chicago be willing to shoot the three and knock it down. In their win against the Spurs, San Antonio shot abysmal from the three, which is unlike them. Chicago also saw all five of its starters score double digits in that game, something that you don’t expect considering that Robin Lopez and Rajon Rondo start for Chicago. The only game which Chicago won playing “their style” was against the Cavaliers at home in December when they absolutely dominated Cleveland in the paint. They crashed the glass and got a majority of their points against Cleveland’s bigs by driving to the basket and offensive rebounds. They are somehow able to squeak out wins against top teams like this but then drop games against some of the worst teams in the NBA. They recently needed a Jimmy Butler comeback and buzzer beater to beat the Nets and also lost to the Dallas Mavericks. You never know what you are going to get with Chicago but solutions are available.

If Chicago is able to space the floor with shooters surrounding Butler/Wade, their offense is much better. That was evident against Cleveland when Butler played with Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, the offense was much better. It allowed Butler to play his game with the defense not collapsing in the paint, respecting the shooting threat of both McDermott and Mirotic. It’s weird that Chicago has only just discovered that. This Chicago team is talented and has some good young players plus a superstar in Butler. But they have to find more consistent offense than just Butler iso-ball. Otherwise you will continue to see them show up against some teams and get blown out by others.

Alex Gres: Who lasts longer with the franchise – Hoiberg or Rondo?

Vijay Vemu: Fred Hoiberg is general manager Gar Forman’s guy. Forman is the one who really wanted Hoiberg and ousted Tom Thibodeau to make sure that the Iowa State coach came to Chicago. Plus Hoiberg is still under contract and I really doubt Jerry Reinsdorf would want to see himself paying another head coach not to coach this team. Eating Hoiberg’s contract would be a big risk for the Bulls front office but it would certainly mean that they are desperate for their jobs. Firing Hoiberg would certainly mean the end of the front office as well so it’s more likely to see Rajon Rondo leave Chicago first. It’s obvious that Chicago sees the misfit that is Rondo and the Bulls. The problem with trading him is that he doesn’t have much value at the moment. Chicago would have to add some sweeteners to a deal with Rondo to get some team to take him on. Maybe a young player or a pick would suffice. But that might be too much for Chicago to give up a pick or a young prospect, especially when the team should be building around Butler. The most likely outcome would be a buyout where the Bulls take Rondo’s $14M and stretch his $3M guaranteed next year over the next 3 years. Chicago would rather let go of the point guard than the coach.

Alex Gres: The Bulls have won nine straight against the Raptors, cementing their role as Toronto’s bogeyman. The last two season series sweeps were characterized by the dominance of Butler and Gasol, but with half of that duo migrating to Texas, how do you see the two teams matching up this year?

Vijay Vemu: Replacing Gasol alongside Butler is future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. He is a very similar player to Butler. A slasher that relies on drives to the basket and a semi-post up game to get points. He can occasionally hit from the outside (he’s hitting 32.6% from deep) but it’s not that big of a threat and defenses know that. So basically Chicago will have to rely on getting shots in the paint along with the greatness of Butler and Wade. But if they can space the floor (like I mentioned earlier) it would go ways in improving their offense. In terms of matching up against the Raptors defensively, expect Butler on DeRozan and MCW on Lowry. Or you might see Wade on DeRozan although I would rather have Butler. But MCW’s length may bother Lowry a bit. Chicago has to work on making sure the Lowry and DeRozan PNR doesn’t kill them. I see the two teams matching up fairly similar although the talent level overall will be higher on Toronto’s side. They are simply the better team. Chicago’s questions will be asked about their bench defense and if they can stay in the game without Butler. They did against the Cavaliers thanks to some hot shooting by Niko Mirotic and Doug McDermott, who single handedly torched Toronto last year in the Air Canada Centre. If those guys are taking smart shots and utilizing their playmaking abilities, it will go a long way to helping Chicago win this game. But the Raptors are a very good team. They can get hot at any moment and given Chicago’s defense, it may be easy pickings for Lowry and company to find open shots.

Chicago has a weird fascination of beating Toronto. It’s more than matchups at this point. It’s a weird voodoo. But the big matchups will be between the backcourts – whichever duo between Wade-Butler and Lowry-DeRozan plays better will win this game.

Projected Lineups

Raptors

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet

SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell

SF: DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross, Bruno Caboclo

PF: Lucas Nogueira, Pascal Siakam

C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl

TBD: Patterson

OUT: Sullinger, Wright

Bulls

PG: Michael Carter-Williams, Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Canaan, Jerian Grant

SG: Dwyane Wade, Denzel Valentine

SF: Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott, Paul Zipser

PF: Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis

C: Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio

The Line

As of Friday night, the Raptors are 2-point favourites despite the Bulls home advantage, with the over under set at 208. With Butler guarding DeRozan and Carter-Williams using his length on Lowry, Toronto will need its role players to step up in order to bring home the W. It’s time to break the voodoo curse.

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